Why am I suddenly having second thoughts about this job?
It's a mad house now at Darien's Den Catering Services, where I filed for a job just last week. I've done this kind of thing before, working in the catering business I mean. It's usually at small time joints though, like places that double as a restaurant or something. Not like Darien's; it's like the next step up from Pier Nine, more like a ball room than a mere place for gatherings or parties. My first night on the job was actually pretty uneventful, but I remember my high school prom being the same way. But then I heard about the parties Darien throws at the end of every month for all of his employees, and it sounded like fun.
"Fun" doesn't even begin to describe it: it's freaking psycho here! I only learned last minute from my buddies in the business, Takeru and Stephen, that it was a masked party, so I just swung by a local Halloween shop and grabbed the least expensive one that didn't look cheap. (Good thing those folks do party junk all year round or I'd be sunk.) I couldn't help feeling extremely stupid even though the mask only covers my eyes and upper face, still making it plenty easy to recognize who I am. I only put it on when I entered Darien's….and just in time. Everybody was going all out on this! People were decked out in fancy gowns and lavish suits that look more like some royalty's uniform rather than a fancy tux. And here I was thinking I'd gone over-kill in my silver and navy blue tuxedo (from my parents when I had to attend my older sister's wedding: I figured I shouldn't complain since they paid for it.) Plus the masks…good God, you would have thought you walked into a play or the set of a movie rather than a party. I was tempted to leave, feeling like I was in just a little over my head, especially when I saw that they were having formal dances down on the floor rather than the usual hip grinding sways of our modern parties, but Stephen caught up to me before I could leave, informing me that Darien takes personal offence if you don't attend his parties from beginning to end. Crap.
So here I am: hanging in near the refreshments table, sipping sherbet punch that I know somebody spiked, and what am I doing? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Unless, of course, you count staring. Yup, for the past two hours I've done nothing besides staring at the whirl of confetti colors spinning on the cream marble floors as people dance and trade off between serving and being served. Hell, even the DJ is totally into this, with his fake powdered wig and waving something that looks like a conductor's baton even as his free hand spins the records that alternate formal orchestra pieces and jazzed opera, to completely out of character modern dance and then back again. The servers are even putting on sloppy Old World accents as they twist between wild dancers and ladies' billowing skirts carrying large trays perfectly balanced with drinks and other snacks. I offered to Darien when he found me that I'd like to serve, but he insisted that since that this was my first party, that I not work. At least if I was working, I wouldn't feel so out of place.
Entering my third hour now...and I think I'm starting to lose the feeling in my left leg, so I shift my weight to my right…only to nearly fall over as someone crashes into me. I recognize the laugh and the slurred apology.
"Christ, Takeru, how much did you have to drink?"
"Ssshhh!! Yore not sh'psed to say my name!"
"He's right," states a slightly more sober Stephen as he helps me steady Takeru, who looks ready to fall over at any given moment. "We're at a masked party, therefore you can be anyone or anything you want to be. I, for example, am Master Jareth, King of the Goblin City," he explains as he gestures to his red goblin mask.
"And I am…Tuxedo Mask!!" says my all too enthusiastic Japanese-American friend as he strikes a pose, pulling his black velvet top hat down to the simple white mask outlining his almond eyes.
I can't resist rolling my eyes: the guy has a bit of an obsession with Japanimation, and if my memory serves me correct, Tuxedo Mask is a character from a dorky girl's show called Sailor Moon. "You belong at an anime con, not a party, ya drunk!" I hiss.
"Don't matter," he replies. "Here ya can be anything ya want. Ya can even have an instant sex change if ya want."
I just about choked on my punch. "Run that by me again..."
Stephen clamps a hand over Takeru's mouth. "Not the best of all phrasing, but certainly not untrue. A word of warning my friend, since this is your first time at our monthly gatherings: Nothing is what it seems. Several cute looking girls might be one of the guys we work with in drag, or the shy man in the back might be a lonely cross dresser. So be careful who you pick up while you're here. You might regret it in the morning."
I knew these people were nuts. "Well, don't worry about me getting with anyone tonight. I got burned not too long ago, and I don't feel like repeating the experience. It's one of the reasons I moved here in the first place."
"Hey, that's too bad man," Stephen offers, wisely keeping his hand still clamped on Takeru's mouth, who would probably say something insensitively stupid right now.
Glaring at our friend, he manages to remove the hand keeping him from speaking. "I was only gonna say that Hay- I mean, well, he needs a name too."
"Oh, good point," 'Jareth' agrees. He looks at me. "So, what are you gonna call yourself?"
You've gotta be kidding. Like I care about any of this game at all. I was about to say as much when a voice interrupted my thoughts, nearly scaring me half to death since it came from right next to my shoulder.
"How about Moonlight Knight?"
We all turn to one of the servers bearing a large metal platter of finger foods. He (I'm guessing that it's a he since he's in a man's deep evergreen tailed suit, but the jacket is closed so I can't see anything that would suggest otherwise, and he's wearing a full face mask that looks like a European's version of those noh masks from old samurai movies,) has his head at a slight angle, trying to see us better through the narrow slits in his mask. Not quite as tall as me, but only four or so inches shorter, he still manages to have this presence about him, one that wants to call your attention without anyone realizing it. Quite a contrast to the loud and distracting ways of the other people partying all around us.
Snapping out of my daze, I make a face. "It sound like one of Ta--- I mean, Tuxedo Mask's anime characters."
"It is," the server and Takeru say at the same time.
The green waiter shrugs. "It was just a suggestion…"he supplies, turning away.
"No! It's just…" I smile sheepishly in my embarrassment, afraid I offended him. "I'd rather not go with a cartoon character's name."
He pauses, looking at me intently. I can tell because of the angle he's at lets the light reflect off of his dark brown eyes. "I think I have another idea then."
"Please don't tell me it's another cartoon," I moan, trying not to grimace.
I can't see his mouth, but I hear the laughter in his voice. "No, I was just thinking how much you look like a prince when you smile: it really highlights the bright blue in your eyes. And the colors of your suit and mask," he motions towards my mask, which is the same deep blue as my jacket and pants with tassels hanging from the outer part to frame my face and silver glitter dusting the edges, "reminds me of midnight's stars. So how about Midnight Prince?"
Suddenly I'm having second thoughts about this person being a guy. So all I can do is stutter, "S-sounds great to me."
He nods and once again turns to leave, but is this time intercepted by Darien. "So, enjoying the party boys?" he asks in his usual energetic tone. While Stephen and Takeru cheer their response, the green server and I share a look of mutual pained understanding.
Darien elbows the waiter in the ribs. "Well, are you gonna join the rest of us any time tonight? I've been waiting to see you in your costume."
I could tell by the slight twist in the head that the waiter was rolling his…or her…eyes. "C'mon Darien, you know how much I hate these kind of things."
"All the more reason you should join in! You need to improve your social skills!"
"Tut-tut. Sparkling Diamond will take over for you." He motions towards a grinning red head in a suit that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. "You in the mean time, will go get changed. I insist!"
I could hear the heavy sigh even through the server's mask. "Alright. I'll go."
My eyes follow the two as they made their way through a back door behind one of the large columns in the ballroom. I don't know what it was about the server, but something caught my attention about the way he had looked at me. My concentration is broken however when my two friends throw their arms around me and attempt to drag me into a game that is starting to take place on the dance floor, now that the DJ has taken a small break. I can tell many of the people have had a bit much to drink, and I don't like getting involved with a large crowd. Luckily Stephen and Takeru are so eager to join the game that they promptly forget about me as I wiggle free and back away. Feeling suddenly stifled and short of breath, I decide to head for the famed gardens in the back of the building for some fresh air.
On the way there, I pass several decorated women with their extravagant dresses and bejeweled masks giggling and motioning my way. I ignore them. I meant what I told Stephen: I was in no mood for having my heart torn out and handed to me like a second rate gift. My last girlfriend and I had a bit of a falling out of it, although I had stopped being attracted to her long before we finally split. You see, I have this….habit when I look for a girl: I have to like her smell. Don't ask me why, although my theory is it has to do with my older sister dragging me with her when she went shopping and she was supposed to be babysitting me. Whenever she wanted to buy a new perfume, she asked me to smell it and tell her whether or not I thought it was nice. Ever since then, when I meet a new girl, the first thing I notice is what sort of perfume they are wearing and what other kind of smells cling to them. Obviously I'm not a fan of girls who smoke; I feel like I'm gonna suffocate whenever I'm around smokers. And it helps when the girls try to keep clean because some smell just awful when they don't remember to shower. My ex-girlfriend had this really nice perfume on when I first met her, a sharp scent called Juniper Breeze. But after that, all she smelt like was makeup and fake stuff. You know, that perfume that doesn't really have a specific scent: you just know that it's perfume. It just all seemed so….unnatural. Like she was trying to cover up who she really was. I tried to ignore it because I thought I knew who she really was even though she didn't like to show it. When I realized she had been seeing someone else through half of our relationship, I wish I had followed my nose.
The garden lamps are on dim, so the main source of light is coming from the half moon glowing from its place in the sky. It casts the entire garden into this ethereal shine that coats ordinary bushes and flowers and fountains in a layer of fairy dust, giving a simple (but well maintained) garden a magical look. I sigh from up on the second floor that overlooks the garden. I'm content to just stay here, soaking in the moonlight and relishing the fresh breeze as it plays with my mask's tassels and my short, dirty blond hair. I'm all alone…but I don't even know if that's what I really want. Still, the enchanting garden is so mystical to look at, that besides the steady flow of music winding its way up from the dance floor, I put the party out of my mind.
Movement out of the corner of my eye suddenly catches my attention and I see a lone figure making its way along the stone path into the garden. My breath catches in my throat as my first thought is that a fairy from my favorite childhood stories just came to life. It was a woman (there's no way I could be wrong: I can see the curves from here) with a flowing white dress trimmed in gold embroidery and beads and tiny jewels. I can even see the moon highlighting the pearls and other decorations in her hair that form a net that keeps her dark tresses tamed in an elegant wrap. Her face is covered except for her lips and chin by a delicate gold mask with ornate designs that fan out at the edges to sweep against her face. Unlike the other women and their classic gowns that billowed from corseted waists and over-amplified hips, her dress truly flows from her form into a long train that flutters in the breeze as she makes her way to the main fountain in the courtyard at the center of the garden.
Without a second thought, my feet whisk across the balcony, the music chasing me as I fly down the steps and cross onto the stone path that she had taken just a few moments ago. I slow as I near her, not wanting to startle her as she stands leaning on one of the statues guarding the fountain. I clear my throat to give her a warning, and she turns her head, surprised, but not upset. Her exposed lips spread into a warm smile and she tips her head at me in greeting.
"I'm sorry if I'm bothering you," I try to explain. "It was getting just a little too…." I jerk my head back towards the party, at loss for one word that could describe all that.
"Crazy?" she offers.
I blink in surprise; I know that voice. "Yeah. Just a bit."
"I know how you feel. I usually don't do these sorts of things, but Darien won't hear of it."
"You're telling me," I mutter, and my insides buzz delightfully when she chuckles softly.
"But other than that, how are you enjoying it here, Prince Midnight?"
The light bulb just came on, and now that she's tilted her head up into the moonlight so she can look at me better, I recognize those brown irises. Amused that the server whose deep, rich voice I had mistaken as a soft-spoken man's was actually a warm and sensitive woman, I answer breathlessly, "It's getting better all the time."
"Oh? That's good to hear."
We watch each other silently for a while, at a loss for anything else to say. Then a slow, graceful tune glides into the garden from the ballroom, and on impulse I ask her if she would like to dance. She glances down, looking flustered when she murmurs she doesn't know how to dance. I receive another smile from her when I admit that I don't either.
"That's very sweet, but I'd rather stay out here. I have a hard time dealing with so many people at once when it's not on a professional level."
I grin. "Who says we have dance in there? I can hear the music just fine from here, can you?"
She breaks into an impish grin of her own. "Perfectly."
"Well, then…" I offer her my hand, suddenly nervous. Remembering how I saw the others performing inside, I wait until her hand is in mine before bowing over it, placing a soft kiss on the back just behind her knuckles. Out of habit, I inhale slightly, trying to guess what perfume she's wearing. My senses are teased by a very sweet smell, one that reminds me of vanilla, only sweeter. I don't know if sugar has a smell, but that's what her perfume reminded me of; vanilla and sugar. It was a bit intoxicating, and I had to remind myself to straighten back up.
Playing her part, she continued to hold my hand as she dipped into a curtsy. I helped her balance her weight by pulling her back up and closer to me so I could place my other hand around her waist while her free hand steadied herself on my arm. Now, please understand that I don't really know how to dance like this, all formal and all, but I silently thank my sister for stubbornly dragging me out for a dance at her wedding so at least now I have some kind of clue as what to do. I let the music guide me, following the beat with a step and the tempo with a twirl. She follows my lead, smiling shyly as our close proximity makes it difficult to look at anything besides each other. The masks are bit frustrating, because not only do they make it difficult to see out of, but we can't really see each other's faces. Still, she has such lively colored eyes that remind me of a puppy's: they can be so sad one minute and so bright the next. I don't think I could ever get tired of her eyes. And her lips….they looked highly inviting….
I gave myself a mental slap. 'Here you are, barely one week single, and you're already drooling over another girl. Learned your lesson real well, didn't you pal?' I told myself. The last thing I wanted was to be burned again, but the vibes I'm getting from this girl are so much more….sincere. She likes being natural: no fake nails, no dyed hair, and if she's wearing makeup, I can't smell it. And she's warmer, her personality wants to just suck you in, whereas my old girlfriend made it a game, made you have to dig through layers of stories, foundations and eyeliner to see what she was really like. This girl just seemed to bare her soul without saying a word. But I wish I could call her something besides 'this girl'.
"So have you been here long? I haven't seen you around much before."
Her voice snaps me back out of my thoughts and I shake my head slightly to clear it. "I started last week when one of the local schools had a prom. I moved here once I knew I had the job."
"Don't like to commute far?" she asks, with a tilt of her head.
I smile sadly. "I didn't want to be around certain people any more than I had to, namely my ex-girlfriend."
"Oh, I'm sorry. When did you break up?"
The concern in her voice is going to make me melt. "Just before I left; I found out she'd been cheating on me for about a year."
Her head jerks in surprise. "You must be kidding," she states flatly.
"Wish I was."
"Stupid," she mutters as she shakes her head. "No offence, but she must have a horrid sense of taste to give a guy like you up. Especially someone with your eyes and your smile."
I bet my face is changing every shade of red known to man, because she giggles when I look down. "Thank you," I manage to get out, not wanting to be rude after she just complimented me. Inside, my stomach is doing flip flops with glee: so the feelings are mutual.
The music begins to change now, becoming even slower. I let the breeze guide me this time and just sway in time with the music. Her hand slips from my shoulder to curl under my arm and behind my back, her head coming to rest on my chest. It's a bold move in subtle way, but I enjoy the contact. No, I need it. I've been feeling so detached for a while, and it started even before I broke up. I wrap my arm around her and hold her close, wishing the music would never stop and we could keep dancing like this for as long as we wanted. Finally I murmur, "You know, I never did get your name."
"I didn't think of one yet."
"Well, I have to call you something."
"What would you like to call me?"
I tip my face down so I can feel her thick hair brushing against my skin. A deep intake of breath and I'm washed over by the wonderful smell of vanilla. "How about, Vanilla Princess?"
She chuckles into my jacket, her breath warm on my shoulder. "I like it," she says thoughtfully.
"And I like your perfume," I say. She looks up at me with a curious expression in her eyes. I glance away, muttering, "Sorry. I just like knowing a girl's perfume."
I risk a glance back and she's smiling at me, and I don't think I'm mistaken when I think she's charmed. "Thank you," she says warmly. Then she asks, "Do you know the scent?"
"Isn't it vanilla?"
"Close. I'm not sure what else is in it exactly, but it's called Warm Vanilla Sugar."
I break into a grin. "Sounds perfect for you."
Now she's cheating: she's hiding her blush by looking down and snuggling closer. But I hear her whisper her thanks….and then something else. "I'm sorry, what was that?"
"I said your cologne; it's Ocean Spray, isn't it?"
"Yeah, how did you know?"
"I used to work in a department store that sold that brand before I came to work here. I remember because of all the ones I helped guys try out, Ocean Spray was my favorite."
I know I'm getting happy over something ridiculously trivial, but…I don't know. It's like we share some big secret that no one else can understand. It just makes me happier than I've been in a long time. I don't know what else to say, so I just hold her closer, resting my head on hers as we continue to dance, even after the DJ stops and our only music is the sound of the breeze playing in the brush and the water bubbling in the fountains.
* * *
As surreal as last night had been, nothing hits you harder in reality like a bad hangover, which my friend Takeru was only too loudly expressing.
"I shouldn't have had so much to drink," he mutters for the umpteenth time.
"Yeah, you shouldn't have," I grumble.
"Look man, I'm sorry I spooked you and your girl. I didn't know you guys were getting cozy in the garden."
" 'Spook'? You had practically everyone at the party chasing you down!" Stephen scolds.
"Hey, c'mon guys! Cut me some slack will ya? And besides, don't you think if she really dug you she would have hung around?"
"She's shy," I snap in her defense, although partially in mine. When I had turned around last night after the whole commotion of half the party suddenly outside with us, my Vanilla Princess had vanished. Takeru had seen her, but couldn't remember her too well.
I feel Stephen's hand on my shoulder. "Sorry about her, Shane. I wasn't able to get close enough to guess who she was before she took off. She could be anyone of the girls here."
I nod, defeated. "Yeah, I know."
"Well, I'm going to take Takeru to Darien's office: the guy usually has a few things for hangovers. We'll meet you in the main hall to start setting up."
" 'Kay." I turn and start heading to the ballroom, my head bowed like it's too heavy for my neck to support. Rounding a corner, I didn't see the other person until we collided and collapsed into a heap of limbs, fresh aprons and table cloths, and what I'm guessing to be the articles to someone's purse.
"Oow... " came a slight whimper. A pair of glasses bounce to a halt in front of my face. Picking them up, I get to my knees. "I'm sorry. Are you alright?"
I see now that I crashed into a girl, who sat up rubbing her shoulder. "Yeah, I'm okay. I'm so sorry about that; I couldn't see you over the pile of stuff I had." She took the glasses from me and slipped them on. "I was in a bit of a hurry. I wanted to get my contacts washed before I work today. I feel so silly having to wear these glasses."
We start picking up her stuff, she organizing and refolding the aprons and me getting her belongings back into her purse. "You're new here, aren't you?" she asks as we work. "I remember Darien mentioning we had a new guy."
I give my flustered smile. "Yeah, that's me. My name's Shane."
"Caitlin," she offers, "but everyone here calls me Sky." She brushes her bangs that have escaped her ponytail away from her face.
"Sky?" I ask her puzzled.
She rolls her eyes. "I'm a big dreamer whose head is, and I quote, "Always up in the clouds.'"
I chuckle, forgetting to be miserable for a little while. The last thing to go back into her purse is a small travel bottle of perfume. The cap fell off so some squirts onto my hand before I can put it away. Zipping up the bag, I stand up and help her to her feet. "Well, it was nice crashing into you, Sky," I say, before handing her the pile of laundry and her purse.
She laughs, and I glance at her surprised. "Nice meeting you too, Shane." She turns to go down the hallway, but pauses just before leaving, grinning at me over the white cloth. "Thanks for the help, and sorry for bumping into you. I'll see you around!"
With a quick smile, she jogs down the hall and around a corner out of sight. I'm still staring after her blankly, wondering why her laugh surprised me so much. I rub my fingers together thoughtlessly and feel the liquid on my finger tips from her perfume bottle. Curious, I lift them up to my face and take a slight sniff. Suddenly a huge grin splits my face as I recognize Warm Vanilla Sugar.