Blood. There's so much of it. It pools beneath me and dilutes in the rain that has been falling for two days now. My arms don't hurt, but they should, considering they are both slashed open at the wrists.
I can hear my mother talking - but that's not right. She shouldn't be here. She's dead.
Regardless, she's standing in front of me suddenly, saying my name. At least, I think that's what she's saying. Her lips don't match what's coming out of her mouth. "Andrea," her lips say, but what comes out is
"Ciera." Jack whispers my name, and I open my eyes, finding myself at work, my head resting on the bar. I got here early, and I must have fallen asleep, waiting for everyone else to arrive.
"Hey, Jack," I say groggily, then clear the scratchiness out of my throat. I sit up and stretch my arms above my head, watching while Jack moves behind the bar, messing with his fuzzy brown hair - almost like he took a quick shower and didn't have time to dry it - holding a thermos in his other hand. When he opens it, the smell of coffee fills my nose - better than the smells of cigarette smoke and whiskey.
Jack pours some coffee into the lid from his thermos and hands it to me.
"Drink this, love." His accent is pleasant in my ears - Irish, funny enough. I like to imagine my grandfather would have sounded like Jack, had I ever met him.
Jack's name, of course, isn't actually "Jack", just like my name isn't actually "Ciera". Everyone who works here has an alias, and that includes Erik. I don't know anyone's real names. Sometimes I feel like I'm even starting to forget my own.
As I drink the coffee, my gloved hand absorbing the warmth from the lid, it hits my stomach like a brick. It contains something other than coffee beans, water, and sugar.
"Is there bourbon in here?"
"Aye," Jack says like it's the most natural thing in the world, and I guess, to him, it is.
Strangely, I've never heard Jack answer "yes" or "no" when asked a question. He either says "aye", or just shakes his head. I don't know if that's an Irish thing, or if it's just something he does. It makes me wonder how he answers questions when he's asked something over the phone.
"Alright," I say with a shrug, then down the rest of the drink like a shot. At least I'm more awake now. I pass the thermos lid back to him. "Thanks."
He caps the thermos, puts it under the bar and comes back up with a rag to wipe the bar down - the same thing he does every day.
"Long night?" he asks, not looking at me. One thing Jack has learned in all his time as a bartender is how to get people to open up, and step one (and sometimes steps two and three, as well) is always alcohol.
"No longer than usual." I know Jack's tricks, and he won't get information out of me that easily. I'm no customer. "Do you know if Jo's here yet?"
"She's having a smoke break out back." He looks at me now, his blue eyes concerned. I don't want to deal with that, so I just say "thanks" again, and move to head outside.
I see the bright end of Johann's cigarette before I actually see her. She's smoked for as long as I've known her. I try to get her to stop at least twice a year, but it never sticks.
As I move to stand next to her, I reach into the pocket of my jeans (or my "street clothes", as Erik calls them) and pull out a joint. I don't have to say anything; Johann just lights it for me without a word, and we simply smoke for a few moments. Pot isn't usually my thing, but after that dream, I need something a little better than alcohol. I got the joint off one of my random hookups. Her name was Eliza, if I'm remembering correctly, and she talked far less than Sarah did. Ironically, she was also a lot better with her tongue.
I look sideways at Johann while we smoke. Her hair was maroon in color on Saturday, when I last saw her, but now it's black, with an underlying hint of blue. Johann is in her mid-thirties, but looks slightly older, thanks to the cigarettes. She started smoking as a teenager, she once told me, and her revealing this was why I started trying to get her to stop. She goes along with my efforts, but I can always tell her heart isn't in it.
But I'm not really one to judge. I have plenty of self-destructive habits of my own.
Johann is wearing knee-high boots with dangerously sharp heels, a black mini-skirt, and a matching sleeveless top. Her preferred work uniform.
Mine is a red or black strapless dress (so I can keep my gloves on without it looking weird) and heels. Something simple, but effective. Both the dresses and the heels are currently in my locker, and I'm going to have to change before work starts, but for now, I'm comfortable in my jeans and tee-shirt. Honestly, I'm comfortable in almost anything, as long as my gloves are on. Having them off makes me feel vulnerable and exposed.
My thoughts turn to Sarah as I puff on the joint. I wonder if she told anyone about our night together. It wouldn't matter if she did, anyway, since almost no one knows my real name, and the establishment where I work isn't exactly the kind of place where promiscuous sex would be frowned upon.
That's not to say this place is a brothel, or even something as simple as a strip club. Rather, the place where my friends and I work is an S&M club. "Buried Pleasures", it's called. The name makes all of us employees roll our eyes, but Erik, having come up with it, likes it just fine. We're known as "soft core" among our regular visitors, and I suppose they're right. The most extreme thing I've ever been asked to do was tie a middle-aged man to a bed and drip hot wax on his chest. I can't speak for Johann, though.
Getting money for fulfilling the (usually) nonsexual desires of others isn't the worst thing I could be doing with my life, and to be honest, I'm good at my job. I take pride in it, in a way. And it keeps me from downing a bottle of pills, or trying once more to open up the veins in my wrists, so I guess it's a win-win. To be honest, I'd probably be dead by now if I lived a "normal" life as a secretary, or a banker, or a doctor. It would have been far too easy to come home from work one night, find myself alone, and smother myself with a pillow, or draw a hot bath, strip, and hold myself under the water until the next breath I took filled my lungs and drowned me from the inside out.
Somber - or, as Johann would call them, "morbid" - thoughts like these are why I don't often smoke pot. It has a tendency to take my mind to dark places, but it mellows me out to the point where I don't notice the thoughts are dangerous until I've been harboring them for a while, which is dangerous in and of itself.
It's time to go back inside.
"I'm gonna go get ready," I say to Johann, stubbing out the joint with the toe of one shoe. "I'll see you in there. I like your hair, by the way," I call over my shoulder as I walk away.
"Thanks," she calls back, then returns to her cigarette.
"Put that out!" I add, and her response is to flip me off with the hand holding the smoke. I laugh without thinking about it.
I use the customer entrance door to get back in, rather than the employees' back door, which leads almost directly to Jack's bar. The sun is going down, and that means Darryl should be here now, if he left his place on time. If not, he's probably still stuck in traffic. He has a tendency to get caught up in cooking something in the microwave, or watching something on television, which then causes him to leave ten or twenty minutes late.
Not tonight, it seems, because he's at his post, standing guard by the door. He's wearing his usual jeans and white shirt, the muscles under his dark skin giving off an intimidating air. He has on steel-toed boots, which isn't abnormal for him, ("they're for kicking asses", he says), and his hairless head is shiny in what's left of the day's sun.
"Ciera." He smiles at me, his teeth pearly-white, but his smile disappears as I get closer and he catches a whiff of the alcohol on my breath. "Woo. You've already seen Jack tonight, huh?"
"He gave me some coffee," I defend myself. "I didn't know he put bourbon in it."
"He always has some kind of alcohol in his coffee," Darryl points out. "That's why it's called Irish coffee."
"That's racist," I say, but I crack a smile before I can stop myself, which causes Darryl to chuckle deeply. "Can I go in, please? I have to get ready."
Darryl steps out of my way and holds the door open.
"See you later," I say to him as I go inside. I hear his reply of "you might want to pop a breath mint!" as the door closes behind me.
The customer entrance to Buried Pleasures has wood flooring. When I first got the job, and Johann was showing me around, she told me that the wood cost Erik more than he had to pay to purchase the building, which is why the "back rooms", as they're called, where Johann and I do our work, all have coarse carpeting.
There are four back rooms, all named after the color of the paint in them. There's the gray room, the green room, the blue room, and the red room - my favorite. It was where I had my first customer, so it holds an odd sort of sentimental value to me. Johann knows this, and usually lets me use it.
Each of the rooms has a large piece of laminated paper tacked to the wall, bearing the safe word that is to be used by the customers who are in that particular room. Johann and I were the ones who came up with this idea, so customers wouldn't have to decide on a safe word of their own if they didn't want to. We both chose two safe words. My choices were simple - "blue" for the blue room, "red" for the red room.
Johann, however, had a little more fun with it. The gray room's safe word is "elephant", and the green room's safe word - or, rather, words - is "Christmas tree". I can't even count the number of times I've almost busted out laughing during a session because I could hear some poor guy yelling "Christmas tree!" from the next room over.
Jack added a little something to each of the back rooms, too. We all got drunk at his bar one weekend, and he grabbed the pocket knife that he usually kept with him from out of his locker, and took off. Johann, Darryl and I were all too buzzed to really be concerned about where he was, and he came back an hour later.
Erik had us all go into the green room the next day to show us the shamrock that had been carved into the wall. He took us to the other three rooms, and we saw that they all bore the same shamrock. They had been carved into the corners behind the doors - almost unnoticeable if you didn't already know about them. He knew Jack had done it, and instead of getting angry, he just ran his index finger along the shamrock's shape and said to Jack,
"Is it possible to be racist against your own people?"
He left the room without another word, and we all thought Jack had gotten away with it, until we got our paychecks the week after, and Jack's was docked fifty dollars. 'For damages', Erik had written in the memo line, and, just to be funny, he added in a poorly-drawn shamrock, as well. After that, he never brought it up again, and we all learned to live with Jack's drunken artwork. I've kind of grown to like the shamrocks, to be honest. They add character to the rooms.
I make my way to the lockers, open mine, and take out my work clothes and the small baggy that I keep my makeup in, then head to the female employee bathroom and change into my dress and heels - the black ones, so they match the gloves I'm already wearing.
I do my eyeliner, put on red lipstick, then give myself a once-over in the mirror, making sure everything is perfect. A good part of my job is based around first impressions, and, doing what I do, I have to carry myself a certain way.
"If you don't look the part," Johann said to me, years ago, when she was first teaching me how to do the job, "you'll loose the person's focus in seconds. And that focus is everything."
Focus is everything. Johann's words come back to me. I often find myself thinking about them while working, and I guess tonight will be no different.
I head into the red room, use the matches in the drawer of the bedside table to light a few candles, shut the door, and sit on the bed to wait. It's good to already be in the room when a customer shows up.
The beds were Erik's idea - he thought they fit the "vibe", as he called it, more than chairs would. Each room has one. They aren't comfortable, but they don't need to be.
I find myself inexplicably thinking about Eliza. Wondering what she's doing tonight. Maybe she's working late at a daycare center, or home making dinner. Or maybe she's found another woman to sleep with. But that's not necessarily true - not every woman in the world is messed up like I am.
Focus is everything. Johann's words hit me again, and I push Eliza out of my head. The door opens, and any remaining thoughts of her - and myself - disappear completely.