You wouldn’t have paid any attention to them. A mouse and her quiet keeper.
She was short and plain. Long denim skirts with pale, button-down blouses. Her sandy hair, braided, then rolled into a bun, and tan ballet flats peaking from beneath the frayed hems of her skirts. If you stepped close, you’d smell the Thieves oil she used in place of hand sanitizer, and perhaps the faint odor of cinnamon and cider vinegar in her hair.
But Claire wasn’t likely to let you come that close.
Her counterpart, the male version of invisible, was much the same in jeans and plain, v-neck tees, except that he wore gray Cowboy boots. Cory’s gleaming smile was inviting, if you noticed him. But you wouldn’t. Until he wanted you to.
Or until she wanted you to.
Selling them Tic Tacs and bottled water, every evening, with the occasional can of dip, I contemplated what they were like in private.
Standing behind a cash register for ten hours a day will turn you into a daydreamer, voyeur, or the best combination of the two. And I found them to be good fantasy fodder, driving away in their shiny yellow SUV that didn’t seem to match up with their rusty pickup truck attire.
Pretty, in the way young church girls are, I sometimes wondered about her bras and panties. Perhaps she didn’t wear any. Maybe she wore the expected white cotton. But my money was on lace and silk. The diamond necklace and earrings she wore eluded to a femininity that was simply kept comfortable beneath the soft, lived in fabric draped loosely over her frame. She hid beneath those clothes, so that only Cory could enjoy her shape.
She stood in front of me late one Sunday evening as he strutted to the cooler to grab four bottles of water. Two more than he usually bought. Her shirt was opened three buttons, and her fingers ran over the teardrop pendant on her necklace, drawing my eye to her collarbone and the scent of her wafted over me through the humid, unconditioned air swirling lazily through the open glass doors.
“This heat is awful. You must be miserable without any AC…”
She’d never spoken to me before, and the lilting gentleness of her voice melted over me like syrup on a snow cone. My surprise must have been evident, because she blushed and brought her fingers up to hide her pert and very rare smile.
I felt Cory watching, but I didn’t want to waste a second glancing at him. Claire was leaning forward, looking at a display of lollipops on the counter, giving me a view of the coral pink bra hidden inside her taupe shirt.
The site of her, blossoming like springtime, was intoxicating. Men can be beautiful to look at too, but women will make your teeth ache. That woman, especially.
Cory strolled to the counter as her fingers lifted to turn the little acrylic lazy Susan packed with 1″ globes of flavored sugar on sticks. His fingers ran up her back and she shivered.
“You wanna sucker, sweetness?”
Her smile twisted into the kind of smirk reserved for private jokes and knowing glances. His hand cupped the back of her neck as he leaned forward and whispered in her ear.
“Watermelon or strawberry?”
She sighed, but her eyes found mine instead of his.
“Cherry. I bet Manda likes cherry.”
I swallowed and wondered if they could hear my heart pumping away inside my chest. I’m not the girl people flirt with. I’m probably more invisible than Cory, to be honest. Plain as a pancake, always wearing a smock or coveralls. Working two jobs to pay off my mom’s house as her brain turns to soup in the nursing home. My dream to actually make something of myself blew away with the smoke of my thirtieth birthday candles. Men didn’t notice me. And women in this town were more likely to become nuns than lesbians. But right then, both of these pretty people were looking at me like I was the lollipop.
“The cherry is good. But the blueberry is my favorite.”
The Tennessee was too thick in my voice, something I shouldn’t have hated but did. My cheeks burned as Cory pulled one cherry and two blueberry from the stand. I glanced up at him and he fixed me with a look that could’ve melted the trays of chocolate bars on the front of the counter.
“You close up in a few, dontcha Manda?”
Blindly scanning the barcode on his waters, I thought I must be hallucinating from the heat and the fact that I’d worked 16 hours straight. They couldn’t actually be flirting with me.
“Yeah, but I can’t lock up until the lot is empty.”
He grinned at me, and I glanced at Claire, whose fingers had abandoned the pendant and were now skimming the lace edge of her pretty bra. His hand around her neck had gone into her hair, and her face was an absolute knot of want and hope, with tiny threads of anxiety wrinkling her brow.
“What if the person in the lot was waiting for you?”
My eyes wouldn’t stay in one place, and neither would my mind. I pulled myself to look at the screen in front of me to find their total, but Cory’s fingers went around my wrist and the contact made me jump.
“Or maybe we could meet up at Jim’s for coffee in twenty?”
He unwrapped the suckers, slowly, one at a time. Lifting the cherry to Claire’s lips where her tongue swirled around it before she took it in her mouth. Then, one of the blue one’s went into his own with a slowness that made my knees week. And as he lifted the last to my own lips, everything south of my navel throbbed and clenched.
Staring at him, pacified by the cloying sweetness that coated my tongue and telling myself that I was foolish to believe that they were actually asking me to meet them, I nodded.
Yes, that’s all I did. Nod.
Cory slid a fifty onto the countertop then under my hand before his fingers traced goose pimples into the surface of my arm, then neck, then cheek. Claire’s hand slid down my other side. I thought my eyes might jump right out of their sockets as she rose on tiptoes, over the counter, and her breath came hot and wet against my ear.
“I hope you really will come.”
I was shaking as they walked away, arms wrapped around each other, whispering until they were on the other side of the building. I popped the candy from my lips and found that, somehow, during all of that, Cory had wrapped a slip of paper around the stick of the sucker.
If you do, I’ll make sure you do.
Over, and over, and over.
It took me a second, too.
You get used to seeing things happen to other people and when they happen to you, you either deny it, stay safely ashore, basking in mediocrity, or you sprint into the ocean, thinking only about how good the change in temperature feels and never about the sharks in the water.
Especially when they look like waves.
I rushed through a fifteen minute closing routine in five and a half, stripped in the bathroom to shave my legs and pits with a disposable razor and gave myself the world’s fastest whore bath, thanking God I worked at a convenience store that carried decent soap. My short hair looked pretty good, considering the humidity, and my freshly washed face would just have to suffice. Girl’s like me don’t carry makeup in our purses. I don’t even own a purse. Not that I’m butch. You know. Just lazy and cheap. A wallet and chapstick fit conveniently into the pocket of my smock.
But I had a new t-shirt in my car. And when I got to the diner, I snuck into it and sprayed myself down with a bottle of essential oil air freshener my mom made me several years before her brain completely gave way to the Alzheimer’s. It smelled of lemongrass and basil. I was surprised it was any good.
The shirt was blue, with the Blueberry Fall’s logo on the left breast. The irony was cute.
The diner was empty except for Claire and Cory. He stood when I walked in, and her smile was enough to make me say, “Let’s just go to your place”.
But, I didn’t.
We talked and drank coffee for two hours. I thought I’d blown it when Claire laid her head on Cory’s shoulder and whispered that she wanted to go. But as we walked out to the parking lot, her fingers intertwined with mine.
At my car, Cory wrapped his arms around Clair from behind and stared at me as her fingers lifted to my cheek. She wanted to kiss me, but his lips were distracting. He took a step forward, pressing her against me, grabbing the back of my neck.
“You want us both or just her. No wrong answers here.”
I couldn’t bring any words to my lips, so I shifted, and showed him my answer. My right hand fisted in his shirt, I pressed my mouth to his and slipped my tongue to meet his. Claire’s nose rubbed along the curve of my neck as she whispered how good I smelled. But as her fingers slipped beneath my top, Cory pulled back.
“Follow us. We’re a mile east of Bogden on Westmill.”
I watched them climb into their SUV, sagging against the driver’s side door of my Honda and thinking this was too good to be true.
You know what they say about that.
I followed them, drunk on the possibilities, assuming it would be a one time thing, but hoping it might be more. I had a whole new fantasy before I even hit Westmill Road. A whole new life plan.
He had told the truth on that little note. But the price I paid for those orgasms probably wasn’t worth it.
It was like a dream, that first night. A human pretzel, writhing beneath decadent, satin sheets, tasting and touching until we were all too exhausted to move. Even the next morning, as Claire revived me, her fingers bringing both Cory and I around. He pulled her between us, then threw us on our backs, making a meal of both of us and then emptying himself across our skin.
I never noticed the knives and ropes. Perhaps they weren’t there.
Monday was my only day off. But it was a luxury to have the same day off every week. I guess they’d probably watched me long enough to know this. I had nowhere to be. And I didn’t want to leave.
Until she locked me in.
You would have never suspected them. And no one ever did.
I wasn’t the first. I won’t be the last.
Maybe, someday, one of us will escape. For now, I have to settle for my Sunday’s, because that’s the night we met. And so, it’s my night.
He always makes me come on Sunday, and I’m always his breakfast on Monday. But the rest of the week, I’m hers.
And I see plenty of those ropes and knives now.
But she’s always sweet enough to pacify me with one of those disgusting blueberry suckers.