Samantha Mitchell examined her fingernails critically. This new shade of pink was good - it suited her skin colour perfectly, and showed no signs of chipping or flaking. She was definitely considering switching to this one for everyday use.
Another six weeks and she'd be eighteen, school would be over in half that time, and how she looked was going to matter more than ever. Friends and family all agreed that the best thing she could do was to try to find work in a salon somewhere, and work her way up. Survive to the end of the semester and she'd have graduated high school, however unimpressively, and then all that mattered would be how she looked, and how skilled she was at getting other people to look equally good.
For now, she was jumping through hoops. The latest one was Experience The World Of Work. Two weeks spent as unpaid labour in any company the school could beg, persuade or blackmail to take on one of their less academic students. Sam had hung around the list when it went up, talked to all her friends about what they were going for, and had eventually gleaned that there was a beauty parlour on the list, located on a small industrial park a couple of miles east of her home. Not for the first time, she'd wished she could read better, but she'd managed to decipher and memorise the location code without anyone asking why she was squinting at the list for so long.
Finally, the old goat in the front of the class was coming to an end. 'Find out what you want to do with your life' - what a joke. Only losers got to eighteen without knowing that. Sam had known for years that she needed to use her looks, not her brains, and thankfully her family were fully behind her. They'd never pushed her to do things she found hard, never nagged her about her low grades, accepted that she wouldn't be going to college or some high-powered office job. She was going to be a beautician.
The class jumped to its feet as one the moment the preaching finished. Sam let the initial scrum around the signup sheet clear - she needed peace and quiet to find the right entry. She was a little concerned about getting the placement she wanted - a couple of other girls in her class also had ambitions in that direction - but her tutors knew where her talents lay, or more precisely, where they didn't lie. They wouldn't want the school to be embarrassed. She'd get it.
She waited until almost everyone had gone before heading over to the sheet. Only Dr Allen, hovering protectively around and ruining her concentration. Lucky that all she had to do was scan down the list and find the correct zip code. A quick check that the address looked right, and she added her name in the thankfully blank space to the right.
"Trying something new, Sam?" a voice said behind her, and she jumped a mile.
"I thought we could choose anything. 'Without prejudice,' you said. There's no need to be sarcastic."
"Of course." Sam's least favourite teacher - the one she was fairly sure had figured out her problem - backed off. "You can choose anything you like. Enjoy your placement." He picked up the papers and walked out, eyebrows raised.
Sam didn't think about the interchange again.
The following Monday, Sam turned up at school smartly turned out, hair and nails immaculate, all ready to go. The last hurdle had been overcome - those who hadn't got the placement they'd applied for had been told on Thursday and compromises found. Nobody had said a word to her.
She waited in the hall with everyone else. For reasons best known to themselves, the powers that be had determined that they should be picked up at the school on the first morning rather than go straight out to their placements. She was called early on, together with two other girls who she particularly disliked. Typical.
The woman who'd come to pick them up raised her eyebrows at Sam, and proceeded to talk solely to the other two students about what they would be doing. Sam simply ignored them; no way anyone above floorsweeper would have been sent out to pick up three work experience students. She didn't need to worry about it.
They pulled into an industrial estate a little way out of town a few minutes later. "We'll just drop Sam off, and then we'll get you two introduced and give you something to do," the driver said cheerfully.
Sam went cold. "Drop me off?"
"Yeah. The racing team guys are expecting you." She glanced at Sam in the mirror. "Maybe not in those clothes."
Ice water filled Sam's veins. Racing team guys? There had been a mistake. She wasn't going to the beauty parlour after all - and the worst of it was that the mistake was probably hers. Another business at the same industrial park. She hadn't considered that. An easy mistake for anyone to make - but there had been confirmation letters since. Anyone else would have spotted incorrect details then. There was no way out of this but the truth, or to play along with whatever fate had dealt her. Her two fellow students were giggling, one leaning forward to whisper in the ear of the other, and Sam knew she had only seconds to keep her secret intact.
"What - you didn't listen in any of those talks?" Sam put as much edge in her voice as she could - it was the only way to keep it from shaking. "I already know what I'm going to do with my life! You want to start work a few months early, you do that. I'm going to have some fun."
One appalled glance from the girl sitting alongside her was all the reaction she got from her schoolmates. She could see the set lips of the woman driving in the mirror, and knew that this was one beauty parlour she wouldn't be applying to work at when she graduated high school.
The car pulled up outside one of the units; grey, windowless, several closed shutter doors and a single middle-aged guy in overalls leaning against the wall enjoying a smoke.
"Well," the driver said, eyebrows practically at her hairline, "enjoy your placement."
"Yeah, Sam," one of the girls tittered, "you go have some fun!"
"You too." Sam turned on her best bright smile, stepped out of the car, and marched briskly across to the building, feeling desperately incongruous in her stylish pink and white outfit, very glad she'd not worn the high heels, and hoping she wasn't about to throw up on the floor and humiliate herself.
"Hi, darlin'," the man drawled as she approached. "Looking for someone?"
"No. I'm supposed to be doing a work placement here. I'm Sam Mitchell."
His eyes widened, and she could just imagine what he was thinking. Sam? Nobody told me it was a girl.
"Come on, then." He looked appreciatively at her, then seemed to gather himself. "Come and meet the team."
Barely fighting down the panic, Sam followed him in.