CHAPTER 1 - "What it's Like to Be Me"


The first thing I see when I get to work in the morning is Bethney Starrs.

I work in the Blue Ribbon convenience store on the corner of Fifth Street and Parker Avenue in Bear Mountain, Oregon. I'm not sure why the town's called Bear Mountain; there definitely aren't any bears around here. There *are* lots of deer and elk and stuff, which wander down the streets like they own the place. There's this one moose that likes to hang out in the parking lot at the store. Maybe it comes to see Bethney.

The Bethney I'm talking about is part of a Pepsi display we've got in the front window. We used to have a life-sized cutout of Jar-Jar Binks there, but somebody stole it. I'm still trying to figure out what anybody would want with the horrible thing, but Mr. Nakayama, who owns the store, just said he was glad to be rid of it and ordered a replacement. Pepsi sent us a cardboard Bethney Starrs, and she's been there ever since.

"Morning," I greeted her, as I climbed the steps. "Nice day, huh? Going to be a little chilly for you in that outfit, though," I added, looking at the tiny little sequined halter top she was wearing. It was early September, and the mountains were starting to turn yellow and orange as the leaves changed colour. My sister and brother were both back in school, which meant no more of them hanging around the store pestering me all day. Kari and Dennis seem to think it's amazingly cool that their older sister works in the store where we all used to go for slushies in the summer. They probably wouldn't say that if they were the ones trying to save for college on my salary.

"Hi, Joanna!" Michelle, the manager, said as I walked in. "How are you this morning?"

"I'm good," I replied, dropping my bag on the counter. I knelt down to fiddle with the radio, looking for the oldies station that broadcasts from Salem... we can usually tune into it if the weather's nice. It's the only one you can get in Bear Mountain that will play Elvis music. I twiddled the dial a bit, and was immediately rewarded with 'Jailhouse Rock.' "Oh, perfect!" I said, cranking the volume up. "This is going to be a good day!"

Michelle, who despite her job description isn't actually much older than I am, laughed. "Just remember you've got to put it back on CDMX when the customers start coming in." She glanced at the page-a-day wall calendar. "We're going to start getting tourists any day now."

I went in back to change into the employee uniform. "Why do people come here to ski in the *winter*?" I asked rhetorically. I've wondered this for years. You'd think that the *last* place people would want to go in the winter is someplace that can get two feet of snow overnight. "Why don't they find somewhere to ski in the *summer* and go to Hawaii or Barbados in the winter?"

"Because they go to Hawaii and Barbados in the summer," said Michelle.

"What's the point, though?" I stuffed as much of my uncooperative hair as I could under a blue cap with the store logo on the front.

"Who knows?" she asked. "All that matters is that they come here and give us their money. Want to do the front windows for me?"

"Not really," I replied, "but I'll do it anyway."

"Just don't splash Bethney," said Michelle, "or none of those Jr. High kids will ever come here again."

Nine o'clock rolled around, and I put the radio back on the 'All Boy Bands, All The Time' station while Michelle unlocked the front doors. Our first customer was, as usual, my friend Cheyenne, who shows up every morning at nine on the dot to buy cigarettes. Her car made some very unhealthy noises as she pulled up out front.

"Isn't that thing dead yet?" I asked as she came inside. Chey's car is an AMX that she rescued from a junkyard in Vancouver a few years ago. We call in 'the Hulk,' and only partly because it's a horrible shade of lime green. She's always saying she's going to fix it up when she gets the money, but personally I think the poor contraption is beyond all hope.

"Nope," she replied cheerfully. "I just changed his oil this morning, actually." She leaned on the counter, where we keep all the lottery scratch-n-wins under a piece of clear plastic, and clicked her tongue stud against her teeth. "I'll have the usual," she added, pointing to the shelves behind the counter.

I got a pack of DeMauriers down for her. "You're going to get cancer from these someday," I reminded her, although I don't know why I bother anymore.

"Well, then I'll be legally allowed to grow pot in my backyard," she replied. Chey looks like the kind of person who'd do that... she'd dyed her hair jet black and wears it in pigtails, and every protruding piece of her body has at least one ring in it. Her usual wardrobe involves fishnet stockings, army boots, and a hoodie with a skull logo on the front. Once when I was visiting her house, I caught her father looking at baby pictures of her and shaking his head.

"Hey," she added, counting out money to pay for her cigarettes, "you'll never guess what I heard on the radio on the way over here."

"What?" I asked.

"A remix of 'A Little Less Conversation,'" she said. "Not a new cover, mind you. Somebody took the original song, Elvis and all, and remixed it."

I stared at her. "You're kidding."

"Nope!" She shook her head. "Keep listening, they'll probably play it again today. This stupid station only plays about a dozen songs anyway."

"Since when does anybody remix Elvis?" I wanted to know. Elvis Presley is called 'the King of Rock N Roll' for a *reason*; his songs were just fine the way they were. Nobody needs to re-record them, and they definitely don't need to be remixed! I shook my head and gave her the change. "Next thing they'll have Bethney Starrs singing it."

"Ssssh!" Chey said. "Don't say that! You'll give people ideas!" She stuffed her wallet, which she made herself out of silver duct tape, back in her pocket. "Anyway, don't knock it until you've listened to it. You liked that rave mix of 'Always on my Mind' that they played at the prom."

"Well, that's true," I admitted, but I still had my doubts. There must be hundreds of re-dos of Elvis songs out there, and I can count the ones I like on one hand. "You want anything else?"

Chey shook her head. "See you around," she said.

"See you," I nodded.

About ten minutes after that, Fuuyumi finally showed up. She's been late every single day since she started work here back in July, but she can get away with it because she's the owner's daughter. She never does any actual *work* if she can possibly help it, but she makes more money than anybody else besides Michelle. We all hate her.

"I suppose you've got a good excuse, as usual," commented Michelle, as Fuuyumi strutted in wearing absurdly high-heeled shoes.

Fuuyumi rolled her eyes. "Of *course* I do."

"Great," Michelle nodded. "We're looking forward to hearing it. Go and get your uniform on."

"Yeah, yeah," grumbled Fuuyumi. "Sheesh... it's not like I'm late on *purpose*, people." Sometimes it's really hard to believe that Fuuyumi is eighteen. My sister in Jr. High acts more mature than she does.

I shook my head. "When are you going to fire her?" I asked, once she was in back with the door shut.

"I wish I could," sighed Michelle. "I'll bet you a pop she blames her mother again."

"You're on," I agreed.

I won. The scapegoat of choice for the day was not her mother, whom she'd been blaming all last week, but the washing machine, which had broken down and forced her to leave early so that she could make a stop at the Laundromat on the way to work. She claimed that she simply hadn't left early enough. Michelle put a buck in the till and told me to take a bottle of pop when I left.

As was standard procedure, Michelle and I spent the morning helping customers while Fuuyumi hung around trying to look like she was working and putting candy on a tab that she never pays. Every so often this catches up with her and she gets zits; we know about this because she'll refuse to come in to work with even one tiny little pimple.

Dealing with Fuuyumi is never the best way to start off a day, but I cheered up a bit when I found out that Chey had been right. In between selections from the four million teenyboppers that pollute the airwaves, the radio did play 'A Little Less Conversation' again, at around noon. Against all expectations, I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn't sure what I'd been expecting when Chey said a 'remix,' but I wouldn't have been shocked to hear something that totally adulterated the original song. What they played actually turned out to be pretty good, and certainly a lot better than most of the various 'covers' I've ever heard. Nobody does the King's songs like he did.

"Oh, god," groaned Fuuyumi, who was pretending to wipe down the slushie machines. "What's *this*? *Elvis*? Joanna, did you change the station again?" she demanded, in her 'I can ask Daddy to fire you' voice.

"No," I said, "this is CDMX."

"Really?" She wrinkled her nose. "What's the world coming to when CDMX plays *Elvis*?"

"A new era of taste in music?" I suggested.

Fuuyumi made her 'martyr' face and pretended I didn't exist.

My co-workers and I refer to the time between about 1:30 and 3:30 in the afternoon as 'the doldrums.' The mid-day rush is long over by then, and the kids from David Rice Atchison Jr. High, down the street, don't usually start turning up until about twenty to four, so everybody takes their breaks in the afternoon. At 2:25 Michelle was on break and Fuuyumi seemed to have decided she better things to do than work, so I was the only person in the store when the song came on for a second time.

Since there was nobody else around, I turned the volume up and went to do a few housekeeping chores, which mostly meant making sure there would be plenty of chips and pop for the Jr. High kids. I often wonder where they get their spending money. I know I never had money to blow on junk food when I was in the eighth grade.

"Baby close your eyes and listen to the music," I sang along, nodding in time to the song as I put bottles of Pepsi into the cooler. "Drift through the summer breeze! It's a groovin' night and I can show you how to use it, so come along with me and put your mind at ease, yeah!" This version of the song was growing on me. I almost started doing a little dance to it, but thought twice about that when I heard the bell above the front door dingle.

"What's *this*?" a voice asked. It jumped an octave halfway through the question, then dropped back to its initial level to add, "*Elvis*?"

I sighed, then turned around and put on a smile for what turned out to be about a dozen Jr. High kids who'd just entered the store. I really couldn't blame them too much; I hadn't had any taste in music when I was in the eighth grade, either. "Good afternoon," I said, turning down the music again and determinedly ignoring the nagging question of why they weren't in school. "What can I help you with?"

"Hi, Jo!" said my sister, appearing out of the little crowd.

"Oh," I said. "Hello, Kari... isn't it awful early for you to be out of school?"

"Somebody pulled the fire alarm," she replied, "so we all left."

"Are you allowed I do that?" I asked doubtfully.

Kari shrugged. "Well, there are a zillion kids wandering around out there. It's not like anybody's going to notice we're missing."

"Don't tell Mom, right?" my brother put in. Karoline and Dennis are twins, thirteen years old, and neither of them have ever seemed to get it through their heads that I can't give them free stuff. They spent most of the summer hanging around the store trying to mooch stuff. I wasn't sure what they wanted now... maybe they thought I wouldn't refuse them in front of witnesses, or maybe they wanted me to give the whole lot free Popsicles or something. Either way, it wasn't going to happen."

"Right," I muttered. "Look, guys, I'm sorry, but I can't give you anything for free. If I do that, it comes out of my salary, and I can't afford..."

"Don't worry," Dennis interrupted. "We don't want to *buy* anything. We just wanted to show you to our friends."

"That's right," Kari agreed. "Everybody, this is our sister, Joanna. Smile, Jo!"

"Show... huh?" I spent a moment standing there and blinking like an idiot before I figured out why they wanted to show me off, and then I felt tempted to start banging my head against the door of the pop cooler. Not again! "I do not," I said, before any of the kids could comment.

"Oh, you do so," said Kari.

"No, I do *not*," I repeated. "Go back to school!"

"You do too!" Kari insisted. She turned around and faced her friends. "Doesn't she?"

There was a brief silence. "Doesn't she what?" somebody asked.

"Look like Bethney Starrs," said Kari. "Go look at the Bethney in the window, and tell me that Jo doesn't look like her."

"I don't," I said.

"She does!" somebody exclaimed. "Her hair's the wrong colour, but if it weren't for that, she would! She's got the same nose and the same chin."

"No, I wouldn't!" Actually, I'd bet money Bethney Starrs' hair is the same colour mine is: dark brown. No-one's hair is *naturally* paprika-red with blonde bangs, and she's too dark to be a redhead. "Are you all finished now?"

"Oh, come on, Jo," said Kari, "just..."

That was when the buzzer went off at the school to say that the students could come back inside now. When I went to school there I used to wonder why it was so loud; now I know it's so that the kids who wander off to the convenience store and the ice cream parlour can hear it.

"Oh, fine," Kari sighed. "Let's go, guys. Thanks, Jo!"

"No problem," I muttered as they all filed out.

Michelle came back from her break just after the kids left. "Are they out of school early today?" she asked.

"No," I sighed. "They had a fire drill, and my siblings wanted to show me off."

"Show you off?" Michelle asked.

"You don't want to know," I promised her.

It would be more accurate to say that *I* didn't want her to know, but either way, she found out anyhow. The kids had one more class that afternoon, which was just enough time for Kari and Dennis' little friends to spread the word all over the entire school. Our afternoon rush that day was legendary. Almost the entire school showed up to blow their spare change... and to gawp at me. A hundred kids were in and out of the store in fifteen minutes, hanging around spilling their slushies on the floor and trying to decide whether I looked like Bethney Starrs. By the time they all left, I was past 'bang my head on the cooler' and well on my way to 'go in back and scream.'

Instead, though, I got the mop and bucket and quietly seethed while I cleaned up the spilled slushies. I hate pop music and the people who make it on principle. They are whores in the dictionary definition sense of the word; people who have no principles and will do anything somebody tells them to if they know they'll get paid for it. Give me the King every time; he at least had some personality.

"Look at it this way," Michelle suggested. "There are way worse people you could look like than Bethney Starrs. I mean, you have to admit she's kind of cute."

"I would rather look like Ozzy Osbourne than Bethney Starrs," I replied darkly.

Michelle considered than, then shook her head. "No," she said, "given *that* option I'd definitely pick Bethney. It would make a great Hallowe'en costume," she added. "Can you picture the looks on kids' faces when they come in and see Bethney Starrs at the till?"

"Do you remember what the weather was like last Hallowe'en?" was my rejoinder. "I don't think it got above minus ten all day. I'd rather not get my bellybutton frostbitten, thanks."

Michelle laughed.

I finished up with the mopping and got back to the till. As I was ringing something through for a particularly whiny customer, it suddenly occurred to me that someday, Bethney Starrs' fifteen minutes of fame would be up. What would she do then? She would most likely have blown all her money on fancy cars and stuff, and end up doing something just as menial as this, with people who were just as annoying as Fuuyumi, for just as ridiculously small a salary, listening to the same twelve god-awful pop songs on CDMX over and over and *over* again. Someday, Bethney Starrs was going to stop singing about what it was like to be *her*, and find out what it was like to be *me*. Oh, sweet.

About ten minutes before five, as I was getting ready to leave, the radio played 'A Little Less Conversation' one more time. Halfway through the song, Mr. Nakayama stopped in to see how we were doing. He looked up at the speakers and frowned fiercely.

"Whas *dis*?" he asked. "*Elvis*?"

I am surrounded by philistines.