The scent of artificial flowers that my manager wore as perfume surrounded me, overly sweet and sickening. I glanced at the clock, willing it to say eleven so my floral-scented nightmare could finally end. Miss Wells must have thought her smell lured the customers in. Really though, she was the reason why we didn’t sell much.
“Um, Miss Wells?” I asked hesitantly, turning to face her. “Do you know where the keys are?” But my manager wasn’t sitting next to me anymore. She was already by the door with her bag and coat ready.
The she-devil grinned at me. “They’re on my table. Lock up for me, will you, Kitty?”
The door shut behind her before an answer even left my mouth. Not that it mattered. I never said no and she knew it. Sighing, I turned back to the clock and waited for the hour hand to hit eleven. As the manager, Miss Wells was supposed to guard the key and lock up the shop, but she never seemed to care and the job was always left to me.
I made one last pull at the lock to make sure that it was latched and then made my way to my car. The old Toyota Corolla that only cost me a few hundred bucks, but hey, it still ran. Most of the time, that is. I picked up this beater off an online ad, and the owner promised me it was a reliable ride, the kind that would take me to and from work everyday.
Except tonight. Instead of sputtering and roaring to life, the engine sat silent. I turned the key two more times before giving up and realizing my car had failed me. Again. Groaning and resting my head on the back of the seat, I looked out the window at Nashville’s night sky.
When was life ever going to go my way?
I climbed out of my car, resigned to the three-mile walk home. Calling for help didn’t matter when you had no friends.
Resting my head against the cool glass of the driver’s side window, I stared at my own reflection. A lonely nineteen-year-old stared back at me. A pathetic girl who worked as a grocery store cashier for Delaney’s Bag and Save, even though it was a small shop and most people went to the bigger grocery stores that were around.
Still, Delaney’s paid me something and that was better than nothing. Plus, the owner was nice. The only problem with work was my manager, but as long I didn’t cross her or get in her way, it was good. I just wished that the owner could get another branch and hire me as the manager of that one.
Because my only dream was to become a manager one day. My dreams are humble, aren’t they? Hardly the high-flying tech CEO or the YouTube beauty mogul that kids these days want to be. But when you grow up as an orphan and move from foster home to foster home, you end up wishing for something that’s within reach and actually possible. Otherwise, there’s just no hope in my bleak circumstances.
Because life has been tough over the years. I had a few foster care couples that took me in, but none that really stuck. After a pre-determined time, they’d send me back to Children’s Services, always with an apologetic look in their eyes.
“Sorry Kitty,” the mom would murmur, unable to look directly at me. “It just didn’t work out.”
The dad would place a hand on my shoulder and grip hard.
“Better luck at your next place,” he’d growl. “You’ll find a place, kiddo.”
And I’d stare at my feet, nodding silently with tears in my eyes. Because why didn’t anyone want me? But after a while, I realized that it wasn’t from being bad or anything. People were looking for someone different. Someone younger, cuter, more outgoing and talkative. I’ve never exuded cute, and in the foster system, being cute equals survival.
But that was over now. I “aged out” of the foster care system on my eighteenth birthday with a check for two hundred dollars and a list of youth homes. It was really scary, honestly. I was on the street with no idea how to proceed.
But somehow I’ve made it this far. With my job and my shabby apartment, things have worked out. There’s some stability in my life, even if it’s not luxurious.
But today, the Toyota just wouldn’t start. Banging the steering wheel, a scream of exasperation escaped my throat. Why today, of all days? The weather was terrible, slush on my boots. Why wouldn’t the Toyota behave?
But when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. So opening the door, I pulled on my jacket and looked down the road. Oh god. Walking three miles after a long day of work sounded awful, but there weren’t any other choices. Tears stung my eyes, but I squeezed them shut and pinched the bridge of my nose, willing myself not cry.
Somehow, things would change. My life couldn’t always be this crappy. Could it?
Fortunately, the walk wasn’t so bad. Long yes, but at least it didn’t snow more. It was just trudging through half-melted ice and pools of slushy snow.
I reached my apartment about forty-five minutes later and was about to open my door when my neighbor Shelly showed up.
“Kitty!” she shouted at me with a huge smile on her face, taking me by surprise. I didn’t even realize Shelly knew my name. We didn’t talk much and only ended up running into each other because of how late I’d get off work. And only on those rare nights when she decided to end her clubbing earlier than usual.
My eyes immediately scanned her outfit. Shelly wore a tight red dress that clung to her like a second skin and her heels were nothing more than deadly spikes. “Back so soon?”
Shelly smiled and shrugged. “I have an early meeting tomorrow with a client. Staying up later might have more consequences than just a hangover.”
I merely nodded, wanting to cut the conversation short. My legs were ready to give out. A minute longer and I might’ve crumpled right in front of her. “Well, goodnight then.”
“You should go clubbing with me next time,” she suddenly said.
As a kid, I dreamed of partying hard and having fun like Shelly, but even that small luxury wasn’t in my budget. “Thanks, but I don’t think I’m cut out for that.”
“Oh come on, just one night to let loose! You’re gonna thank me for it.” She pulled her long dark hair to the side.
I hugged myself and tried to flash her a smile. “It’s not that. I just can’t afford to go clubbing.”
Shelly’s eyebrows rose. “What? Not even for one night?”
I shrugged. “All of my money goes to rent and bills and food. Nothing else. I can’t afford anything else.”
Looking down, I willed myself not to cry, even when my voice broke on the last word. Speaking about my finances to anyone wasn’t easy, not even to myself.
I tried not to think about it myself, let alone tell others. Why bother if it couldn’t change the facts? My life was a curse and that’s all it would ever be. I was a baby brought to the front steps of a police station in the dead of the night and was placed in an orphanage before being thrust into foster care system.
My existence had been tough since the day I was born and that wasn’t going to change any time soon.
Shelly’s eyes widened with pity. I hated it and wanted to disappear from that look. The same look almost everyone gave me. The foster parents, the staff in charge of people like me, and even the owner of Delaney’s.
My life was pitiful to some folks, but I’d overcome. There was no need to look down their noses at me.
Shelly gave me a searching look before speaking in a low voice.
“I might know a way to help,” she offered, her voice quiet and cautious. “But I don’t know if you’d be up for it.”
My ears perked up. Hope was a dangerous thing. A danger I usually tried to squash, but the wary look in Shelly’s eyes had me wishing for something better. “What is it?”
The blonde’s eyes scanned me for a moment, scrutinizing every inch, and I grew uncomfortable under her gaze. But then her eyes met mine again and she looked at me seriously. “It’s not exactly a white-collar job. Or even a blue one, for that matter.”
With how pathetic my life was at that point, I didn’t have the right to be picky about any job given to me.
“What is it?” was my cautious inquiry.
Shelly’s mouth opened, but she hesitated and the space between us became thick with silence. It was stupid of me to hope she might help. Quickly, I turned to the front door.
“I don’t have time for this, Shelly,” were my mumbled words, wanting nothing more than to crawl to bed and shut down for a little while. “Good night.”
But the woman spoke quickly then.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she finally said, reaching a hand out to stop me but not touching. “But look.”
Shelly slowly raised the hem of her skirt and my eyes zeroed in on the red marks on her skin and on the back of her thighs. They were red streaks and marks that had clearly been made by some sort of whip or something.
My hands immediately went to her shoulders. “Are you okay? Do you want to report this? Should we call the police?”
Shelly shook her head, removed my hands, and laughed at my reaction. “It’s not like that, Kitty.”
“You let men abuse you?” I asked in complete shock.
Shelly scratched her head and then sank down on the ground, kicking off the heels she wore and tucking her legs beneath her. She motioned for me to do sit next to her.
“I’m a submissive, Kitty,” she said in a low voice, even though there was no one else in the hall this late at night. “You know. Haven’t you seen Fifty Shades of Gray?”
I blinked, unable to comprehend what she meant. “What? What do you mean?”
Shelly sighed and looked at me the way I used to imagine someone older, like a big sister reprimanding her younger one. “What I mean is that I’m into BDSM.”
“BDSM?” I must’ve looked like a pre-school student staring at her teacher in utter confusion.
“Bondage and discipline. Submission and dominance.” Shelly rubbed her temple for a moment. “Well, it’s sex with role-play. I guess that’s probably the simplest way to explain it.”
My mouth hung open. There was no air in my lungs whatsoever.
Seeing my shocked look, Shelly continued.
“And there’s a dominant and a submissive. A dominant can be a sadist who likes to inflict pain on his partner while the submissive is the one who receives the pain. But a submissive is also masochistic. Someone that finds pleasure in the pain. Do you understand?”
My eyes goggled at the girl. So that blonde was saying she liked men to beat her? To hurt her, and leave those red marks?
Reading the question in my eyes, Shelly paused then nodded. “But not all BDSM relations are what I just described. There are so many combinations it would boggle your innocent mind. But most of the time, I find that men who are dominate like to add in punishment more often than not.”
“Okay,” I said slowly, still uncomprehending. “But why are you telling me this?”
She shrugged nonchalantly.
“Well, not many people are into that sexual lifestyle,” my neighbor tossed off, leaning down to massage her foot. “So Doms usually seek subs. And they negotiate. There’s a contract, so it’s like a job. Get it?”
“A job?” I asked, puzzled. “This is a job?”
Shelly sighed and for a moment, I was afraid that she might think I was too dumb to comprehend anything about BDSM, like some kind of clueless child that couldn’t be taught.
But then Shelly continued.
“There’s this agency. It’s called Seductive Subs. There, a Dominant will search among all the subs listed and choose who he wants to play with. There will be contracts that need to be reviewed, and the agency takes care of all the financial agreements.” Shelly looked at me with a smile. “It’s easy money and a win-win for people like me. You’re not only pleasured but also paid for it.”
My brain couldn’t process her words at first. Seductive Subs? BDSM? A Dominant? Masochism? I didn’t know how to absorb everything she’d just said.
Shelly stood up and then looked down at me. “So what do you say?” was her impatient demand, one foot tapping on the floor.
What was I supposed to say? “I don’t know.”
Shelly nodded. She seemed to understand my confusion and disbelief regarding her work. “Well, do you think you’d be up for it?”
If her explanation still confused me, then how could I be up for it?
“I think I’ll just have to keep working at the grocery store,” was my slow reply. “Delaney’s, just on the other side of town.”
Shelly nodded and turned away silently, opening the door to her apartment. But halfway in, the blonde turned back to me. “Look up the site, Kitty. You might change your mind. If you do, come talk to me.”
I couldn’t even say anything as the woman disappeared. Because what in the world?
Dominant and submissive?
Were there actually people who found pleasure in pain?
How was that even possible?
Slowly opening the door to my apartment, I let myself into the small space. And once inside, my head spun from all the information Shelly had just told me.
Because what was this all about?
Resolving to put it out of my head, my hand reached for the fridge door. And then my stomach sank because it was nearly empty inside. A can of grape soda and half a block of cheese. God. I closed my eyes, and for probably the hundredth time that night, sighed again before closing the fridge.
I needed money.
What Shelly had suggested couldn’t be the answer to my poverty. For one thing, I couldn’t even begin to understand how someone could find pleasure in torturing another person.
That was insane.
And for another, I was a virgin at the ripe old age of nineteen.
It wasn’t to save myself for the man I would marry someday or anything like that. It was because no one had ever found me dateable. Not that there’d been time for dating while working my fingers to the bone just to survive.
So how could a virgin like me even sign up for that kind of thing?
What Dominant in their right mind would even want someone who was not only inexperienced in that kind of sexual lifestyle, but also clueless about sex in general?
Me, the curvy girl. The big brunette who knows nothing about boys, much less pleasure and pain.
And resolutely, I put it out of my head. Because I’d find some way to pay my bills … without selling my body for money.