A Woman’s Will
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Willow bounded up the steps to the staff entrance breathing crisp fresh air and ready to start her new job. It was three weeks into the new year, and she would finally be able to support herself. When she graduated from high school four years earlier, the economy forced her to accept temporary sales jobs she hated. Things improved, and the 1984 Christmas buying season at the mall was insane. Overtime pay gave Willow the financial cushion she needed to make it on her own with roommates to soften the obscene cost of city living.
Her long, thin honey-colored hair bounced and swayed offering stark contrast to her navy blue uniform shirt. Willow’s hair grew slowly and tended to fall out easily. It didn’t reach between her shoulder blades until she was fifteen years old. The one significant vanity she allowed herself was keeping her hair long and neat.
“Aren’t you chipper this morning,” the Assistant Manager said.
“I’m happy to be here,” Willow explained. “Anything’s better than retail.”
“Hmm,” the older woman replied. “Here’s your timecard. Go ahead and clock in now.” The Assistant Manager pointed to an old-style mechanical clock.
Willow dropped her card into the obvious slot and waited.
“Press the button.”
A slender finger pressed until her knuckle turned white and a click followed by a thud fulfilled the machine’s purpose. “Where do I put it now?”
“There’s a board over here.”
Willow followed past a row of dented old lockers.
“I haven’t labeled your slot yet, so just pick one of the unlabeled ones.”
The pair navigated through a maze of dingy corridors leading to the front reception area. “You can start here.” The Assistant Manager indicated a polished wooden counter as high as Willow’s chest. “If the phone rings, answer ‘Five Oaks Country Club. How may I direct your call?'”
“How should I direct the calls?”
“Most will be for dining room reservations. The number is labeled on the phone. Press ‘forward’ and then ‘dining room.’ Stay on the line until someone picks up. If you hang up too soon, the system sometimes drops calls.”
“OK. Anything else?”
The Assistant Manager regarded her. “I don’t have a name tag for you yet. Do you want it to say Willow, or do you prefer a nickname?”
“Willow is fine. Some people call me Will.”
The Assistant Manager’s eyes scanned Willow from head to toe. The new girl’s clean, pretty face and delicate bone structure failed to overcome an overall sloppy appearance. Standard black Converse with white laces looked anything but feminine. Baggy tan uniform pants were ordered with the smallest waist available for her height. The arms of her long-sleeved polo shirt barely reached her wrists, but in anything larger, she’d look like a potato sack. The ensemble concealed any figure the young woman might have.
After a sigh, the Assistant Manager continued a well-rehearsed first-day speech. “This is an exclusive club, and members pay more in dues than you’ll earn in a year. They expect to be pampered. Study the pictures in the member directory under the counter until you recognize them, and greet members by name if possible. Our staff fades into the woodwork, anticipating needs without being asked and providing services without being noticed. Don’t expect tips, but graciously accept any offered. We’re short-staffed, so you’ll likely have several assignments over the next few weeks. My office is around the corner. Fetch me if you have any questions.”
The morning dragged with few calls and fewer guests. Willow worked through the member directory as far as “Dr. MacMillan” before noon.
“Take a half-hour for lunch,” the Assistant Manager barked. “I’ll watch the counter until you return, and don’t be late.”
“Is there some place I should go?”
“Use the break room.”
Willow assumed her boss meant the hallway with the time clock and lockers. When Willow turned the final corner, she almost bumped into a tall young man who loomed above her. His uniform matched hers, and his name tag said “Denim.” Willow hated being in close quarters with strangers.
Junior high and high school conditioned Willow to be wary meeting new people. Kids were cruel to anyone unusual, and she was the girl who never developed. She did, but it wasn’t until late in high school. She remained rail thin with tiny breasts. People often mistook the shy twenty-two year old making a place for herself in the world for a lanky twelve year old. Her mother said looking ten years younger than her age would be a blessing one day.
“Um, hello,” Willow sputtered, remembering that people don’t like it when you pretend they don’t exist. Coworkers at a short term job a few years earlier called her a snob, excluded her from conversations, and pushed her around. Ever since, Willow had made an effort to socialize even when instincts told her people would end up talking behind her back anyway.
“Hey,” he replied. “You’re the new girl.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said but seemed disinterested.
“Where do you work?” she asked.
“I’m a locker room attendant, and sometimes I work the counter. The best days are bussing tables. I can make forty dollars a night from my share of tips.”
“Where is everybody else? You’re the first person I’ve met besides Shirley.”
“Yah, don’t get on her wrong side. She’s a mean old battle-ax.”
“There are a couple of girls who work the women’s locker room. The restaurant’s open, so there’s a dozen people back there. We usually have a couple more attendants for the men’s lockers, but I’m holding the fort today. There are physical trainers and a masseuse most days. Oh, and the maintenance staff works at night cleaning and doing laundry.”
“Huh. I haven’t seen anybody.”
“Didn’t you get the speech? We’re not supposed to be seen, especially not in the front lobby.”
“How long have you been here?”
“It’s been three years, ever since I finished high school.”
They looked at each other in awkward silence.
“Well, ah, I better get back to work. I’m expecting the regular group for racquetball,” Denim said.
“Nice meeting you.” Willow forced a smile. It went better than she expected. He didn’t ask her where she went to school. New coworkers at the mall always asked. They looked at her like she was a freak when she told them her age.
“Yeah,” he replied and stepped past her.
The first week elapsed much like the first day. The antique phone system dropped calls even while she stayed on the line during a transfer. She memorized an apology to use when members called back. The job allowed too much time for her thoughts to wander. Shirley added tasks like collecting wet towels and robes from the women’s locker room, which gave Willow a chance to see more of the facility. She met other staff, or at least introduced herself when they called the front desk. Each time, Willow forwarded the call to the Assistant Manager who never went home, as far as anyone could tell.
Willow recognized most members from the directory pictures even if she couldn’t yet match names with faces. One member, a young professional sort, passed her counter barely noticing her existence every day. The directory called him Mr. Gregory (Smalley) Hamilton. He dressed in unfashionable pleated slacks and ugly sweaters, but he carried himself with athletic grace.
Willow watched people come and go. She indulged her habit of daydreaming and devising elaborate fantasy back stories and glamorous lives for strangers. The old woman with pearls and alligator boots had married a mobster. Debutants organizing the Valentine’s Day Cotillion had escaped from a sadistic Swiss finishing school. Willow leaned against the counter with her eyes closed at the end of her Friday shift and concocted an explanation for the young Mr. Hamilton’s ample leisure time. She made him a millionaire tennis champion. Her new good friend, Smalley, bent and whispered an invitation to dine on his yacht.
The phone buzzed her back to reality. Shirley called her into the office and introduced her to Mr. Gauss, the club’s General Manager. He greeted Willow in the manner of an indulgent grandfather and asked about her first week.
“I’m very happy here,” she answered in a meek voice.
The Assistant Manager’s stern manner made the General Manager’s seem even kinder. “We’d like you to work Saturday morning. The lockers in the break room need a coat of paint before the doors rust off the hinges.”
“What time should I arrive?”
The General Manager smiled and locked eyes with his assistant.
“Be here by six a.m. so the paint fumes have a chance to clear before the lunch crowd arrives.”
Willow forced a neutral expression and agreed.
“You can clock out now,” Shirley commanded, but as Willow turned, added, “Wear your uniform in case I need you to fill in somewhere. I’ll find something you can use to keep the paint off your clothes.”
Willow inspected the lockers as she departed. A few doors hung cockeyed, and she saw traces of rust bubbles in the paint. Padlocks protected three or four on the end of the row, but most remained empty or contained trash.
The earliest bus passed Willow’s apartment at 5:05 a.m., and she almost missed it. The typical forty-five minute ride took half an hour because nobody wanted on or off the bus. A week of mild weather had turned nasty faster than anyone expected, and Willow regretted not bringing a coat. She shivered in the dark by the locked side entrance for fifteen minutes before one of the cleaning staff opened the door to leave.
“Thanks,” she said through chattering teeth to the old man in coveralls.
He let her pass but stared too long at her. Willow experienced her usual creepy premonition. She didn’t like the way men looked at her sometimes. She wondered if other girls learned as young teens to tolerate predatory looks. When Willow was a young teen, she received looks of pity or ridicule. “Hey little boy, did you lose your mommy?” One kid in ninth grade asker her every time she passed in the hallways at school.
As an adult, Willow accepted that men either looked past her or leered. She preferred to be invisible, but invisibility brought a tinge of sadness as well. Girls like her roommates relished “the look” and embraced the pleasures of men. Being invisible kept Willow from unraveling the mystery of life that plagued her imagination. It was a curse to evade and desire the same thing.
A short stepladder supported two cans of gray paint along with written instructions to fetch a brush from the maintenance cupboard and something from lost and found to protect her uniform. What maintenance cupboard? Nobody ever showed her a maintenance cupboard.
It turned out to be a closet by the kitchen delivery door. An old woman in a hairnet took a break from chopping lettuce to direct her. The mechanical clock showed 6:32 before Willow returned and remembered to punch her timecard.
With no clue where to find the lost and found, she rolled up her sleeves and resolved to be careful. The row of lockers looked much better at ten when Shirley appraised her work.
“How much paint is left?”
“More than half a can,” Willow estimated.
“Paint the worst of the insides then. You might as well use it all.” Shirley didn’t wait for a reply before striding away.
“Where’s the lost and found?” Willow called after her boss but received no reply.
Twenty minutes spent dragging a large trash can and tossing the contents of open lockers left Willow tired and panting. The narrow hallway forced her to collapse the step ladder to make room for the trash container. She stashed the empty paint can and the paint brush on top of a five year old Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition in one of the lockers with a broken door. The other paint can nearly spilled when she bumped it with the folded stepladder, so she pressed the lid into its groove with her fingers and set it on top of the lockers.
Willow crawled along the floor to empty the bottom row when the side door burst open. Time slowed as the door slammed against shiny wet paint. Hope bloomed for a moment when the can tipped but didn’t spill. The side door rebounded closed until Denim stomped in brushing snow from his coat and shoved the door out of his way.
The falling can struck Willow below her shoulders. Its lid popped loose, and thick paint splattered in every direction. It coated her hair, her shirt, and an impressive area of the floor. She collapsed onto her stomach feeling cold tiles sap heat from her body and smiled to fight off despair.
“Oh, shit,” Denim cursed and made exaggerated movements to wipe a splatter off his trousers. It smeared and expanded the problem.
Willow sat and rotated her shoulders. Her back ached, and she pictured a spectacular bruise developing. One of the locker room girls slipped past Denim to stomp sleet and snow from her boots. “I’ll get Shirley,” she warned in the most serious deadpan.
To everyone’s surprise, the Assistant Manager didn’t yell. She looked murderous, and her level voice was cold, but she never raised it. “You two, clean up this mess. I want every bit of paint off the floor before it dries. Don’t even think of tracking paint out of this room.”
Denim looked scandalized. “Why me? I didn’t do anything.”
Willow tried to rip the skin from his body with her eyes, but that power eluded her.
“I’ll send somebody with buckets and sponges.” Shirley turned and muttered, “You’ll pay for new uniforms, too.”
In a way, the last comment heartened Willow. It meant she wasn’t fired, yet.
As expected, Denim contributed nothing to the effort. He paced, complained, and smeared paint. Willow seethed. At least Denim wouldn’t get paid for being useless. He never punched his card.
The floor sparkled at noon when Shirley checked their progress. “Denim, go home. Willow, try to get the paint out of your hair before it dries any more.”
“Can I use the showers?”
“Absolutely not. There’s a utility sink in the closet behind the kitchen. Use that, but before you do, change your clothes. I don’t want you tracking paint.”
Willow shrugged with a bewildered expression.
The Assistant Manager stepped out of the staff area and promptly returned with a large cardboard box. She rummaged to produce a white muscle shirt and black sweat pants with a ripped knee.
“The lost and found,” Willow guessed.
Shirley shook her head at her least favorite employee and glared at Denim. He took the hint and slammed the door behind him as he stepped into the cold. Willow refrained from pointing out the paint splatter on the outside of the door. It must have still been open at the critical moment.
“Hurry up. Get out of those filthy clothes.”
Willow glanced past her boss without seeing anyone lurking around the corner. The door behind remained closed. Her shaking hands pulled the uniform shirt over her head, exposing a bare torso. Willow seldom bothered with bras any more than she bothered with makeup, and she didn’t give either a single thought when she woke at 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Shirley did a double take at the sight of breasts too small to fill champaign glasses. The older woman exchanged the muscle shirt for the uniform shirt.
The stained white cotton drooped to expose Willow’s nipples if she neglected to readjust. Material hung low enough to conceal pink silk panties after she removed ruined slacks. The elastic waist of the sweatpants didn’t come close to gripping Willow’s hips and threatened to fall off until she found and knotted a drawstring.
Shirley tossed Willow’s clothes in the trash and led the way past the Kitchen. Staff turned to observe the walk of shame, but they resumed their chores in reaction to Shirley’s glare. Willow bent over the large utility sink and placed her head under the faucet while Shirley let the water run until it went from gray to clear. In the process, she drenched the white shirt, making it translucent. Willow squeezed her eyes to avoid getting paint in them.
“Hmm,” Shirley remarked after turning off the water. “Do you have a way to get home?”
“I rode the bus this morning.”
“I’ll drive you.”
Willow tried everything from hot water to cold water to turpentine which did nothing to remove latex paint. Once dried, it became solid plastic, and plenty of it dried in Willow’s hair. Her roommates called every hair salon in the area until one gave Willow the last Saturday appointment. Hairdressers milled around her and conferred before calling Ian, the expert. He closed the shop at eight p.m. but stayed past nine working on Willow. Too much paint had clumped and dried too close to her scalp. In the end, Ian resorted to the electric trimmers while tears welled in his client’s eyes.
Shirley called on Sunday, telling Willow not to come to work until her new uniform arrived on Wednesday.
“I haven’t even cashed my first paycheck yet,” the independent young woman complained to her sympathetic roommates.
She wore her heavy coat to the supermarket and kept her hood up in the store. She wished for a pink coat instead of her loose-fitting black one. Anything and everything feminine gained appeal to an extent that on Tuesday, she purchased an impractical pink bra from the girls’ department at K-Mart. She browsed the personal grooming aisle reading labels on blush and mascara. Her roommates graduated from the “too much is never enough” school of sex appeal. Willow lacked confidence to try cosmetics on her own.
“Take off the hood,” Shirley demanded on Wednesday. “Let’s see how bad it is.”
Willow cowered in her boss’ office and complied.
“Your new uniform arrived.” Shirley shook her head and pointed to a box on the desk. “Change in here while I find out why it’s taking so long for your name tag.”
Upon returning, the transformation appeared complete. A young man or boy with crew-cut honey hair slumped in a unisex uniform. Shirley continued to shake her head as she handed over a name tag inscribed, “Will.”
“Go work the front counter,” the Assistant Manager grumped.
The morning went well, and even though Willow kept her eyes downcast, she gained confidence. To her pleasant surprise, members passed the counter with hardly a glance. She received none of the lingering looks she dreaded. The phone buzzed with a tone characteristic of an inside call, so Willow answered, “Front desk.”
The voice on the other end didn’t belong to any of the staff. “Hello, hello!” he bellowed. “I need fresh towels and a robe in the locker room.”
“Yes sir,” Willow replied.
The phone clicked, and she dialed Shirley. Members never used the internal phone system. There was going to be hell to pay.
“I just answered an internal call from a member. He wants fresh towels and a robe in the locker room.”
“I’ll be right there. Stay by the phone in case he calls again.”
The phone buzzed ten minutes later as Shirley arrived, and Willow handed it directly to her.
“Yes, sir. Someone is on the way. I understand. I’m terribly sorry, sir.” She dropped the phone back in its cradle.
“Here’s the situation,” she said with uncharacteristic hesitation. “Lloyd left the building for his lunch break without telling anyone. Denim called in sick today. Mr. Gauss is on vacation. There isn’t time to fetch anyone from the dining room, and they can’t be spared during the rush anyway. I want you to take the towels and robe to Dr. MacMillan. Take extras in case there’s anybody else. Don’t dawdle. Don’t stare; just in and out.”
“I know, but it can’t be helped, and if he gets any more unhappy, neither of us will have a job. Just do it. In and out, and nobody will notice. Remember, we aren’t seen.”
Shirley shoved Willow down the corridor to the laundry. She piled so many items on Willow’s outstretched arms that Willow couldn’t see where she was going. One last shove propelled her into the fitness area as the “Staff Only” door swung shut behind her. The locker rooms branched off a corridor beyond the elliptical machines, men’s to the left and women’s to the right.
“Excuse me,” Willow muttered to get past a pair of dowdy matrons blocking her path. They stepped aside, but Willow hesitated.
Her pulse raced. Willow’s oldest fantasy involved being invisible in a man’s bedroom or changing room, seeing but not being seen. When she closed her eyes each night, she devised improbable ways to satisfy her sexual curiosity without having to expose herself. She wished life could be a one way mirror. The thought of walking into the men’s locker room at a busy time of day produced a not unpleasant chill up her spine. Her mouth watered.
“Yes?” one of the women asked.
Willow plunged forward into the men’s area. She hugged a wall resisting the urge to look around until a familiar voice bellowed, “Over here!”
Dr. MacMillan’s gray curly chest hair blocked her sightline when he snatched a towel. She blushed, and the man studied her. She retreated, but he halted her escape.
“Wait a minute. I need a robe.”
Willow kept her eyes on the floor as the naked man took his time. When he dislodged a robe from the center of the pile, the stack toppled onto the floor.
MacMillan grumbled something unintelligible about staff inadequacy while Willow scurried to collect items. When she looked up, a penis dangled inches from her face. The flaccid organ might as well have belonged to an elephant as far as she could tell, but its owner would have called it middling. She backed away and scampered to the door, willing herself not to peep into the crowded communal shower on the way. The women in the hall watched bewildered as she sprinted in flagrant violation of staff rules.
Willow avoided the Assistant Manager. She wasted the afternoon replaying the brief incident. The penis grew in hindsight to resemble a barbarian’s club. Concealed behind her counter, she clenched her thighs together and whimpered in sympathy for any woman who had to endure it. “That was the ugliest and scariest sight imaginable,” she told herself, but she was never a good liar. Her stomach agitated, and her thoughts wandered. Patches of forgotten youthful fantasies flashed like a highlight reel, except vague notions of abstract ideas about hazy impressions sharpened into focus. Willow shuddered with raging hormones making her high.
She recast a recurring character, “The Man”, in her favorite dreams. He frolicked within the intimate corners of Willow’s mind, but he seldom resolved enough to have specific features. Lately, he wore pleated trousers, but she usually thought of him as a nondescript underwear model. The new man’s underwear faded to expose a dangling monster. She shuddered and clenched her thighs again. “What would it be like to be seen by a man?” she pondered. “What would it be like if a man wanted her to see?”
Later that afternoon, Willow pushed a rolling hamper into the women’s locker room as usual to collect wet towels. A blood-curdling scream from a middle-aged woman startled her. The woman covered large breasts with an arm and squatted to hide her vulva.
“What are you doing in here?” the member screeched.
Several other women covered themselves and instigated a stampede out of view.
“What’s going on?” one of the attendants asked, as bewildered as Willow.
“There’s a boy in here.” The middle-aged woman pointed at Willow.
The attendant, Stephanie, laughed. “Oh, I understand. Don’t worry, that’s Willow. She’s a girl.”
The member looked skeptical, and then she ordered Stephanie to fetch the manager. “I saw him go in the men’s room earlier today. One way or another, something’s not right.” The woman no longer covered herself.
Willow sat on a bench to await her fate. When the Assistant Manager arrived, she commanded Willow to take a fifteen-minute break. The naked member ranted. Willow’s hesitant motions toward the door accelerated when Shirley turned to glare. Muffled shouting carried down the corridor until Willow passed through the staff door. Her empty stomach heaved, producing nothing but a foul taste. Willow sat on the floor with her back against freshly-painted lockers and had no memory of her journey to get there.
“Stand up and listen to me.”
Willow followed Shirley’s orders but wavered unsteadily on her feet.
“I gave Mrs. Woolport a cockamamie story about you having a brother who works here. I told her she saw your brother go into the men’s area. She bought it for now or there’d be police involved. Stick to the story. As far as members are concerned, there are two of you, Will and Willow.”
Questions sprang to mind even as Willow nodded. “What about the other staff? They know.”
“I’ll worry about that. In a few days, I’ll find an excuse to fire your brother, and that’ll take the pressure off.”
“Why a few days?”
“I told Mrs. Woolport I’d fire you immediately, but she threatened to complain to Mr. Gauss if I did. She doesn’t want you dismissed on her account. I can’t imagine she’d be happy to hear I fired your brother, either.”
“She really believes it?”
“Let’s hope. Clock out and go home for today. I don’t want you bumping into any more members. I’m moving you to the evening shift tomorrow. This will all look better in the morning.”
When Willow arrived for work, she spotted Denim working the front counter, so she hunted down Shirley to get a new assignment.
“Will, come over here a moment,” the boss said when Willow found her in the laundry room. “The story of Mrs. Woolport’s hysteria has become the subject of confused gossip among members.”
Willow looked at her feet expecting to be fired.
“I want you to be Will for a while. Your name tag already says Will, and I need to establish the existence of your brother. After some of the members get to know you as your brother and the staff gets used to it, we’ll switch you back to the day shift. I’ll help you with makeup and maybe a wig. Everyone will see a clear difference between Willow and Will.”
“But, I can’t, ah–”
“Are you going to back me on this or not?” The Assistant Manager’s grim tone limited the acceptable range of answers.
“Nobody will believe it.”
“Many of the staff already believe it. Most who saw you last week wouldn’t recognize you now. I’ll give you tasks that keep you away from people. You’re not supposed to be seen anyway.”
“I don’t want–”
The imposing older woman interrupted Willow’s objection with a forceful proclamation. “I don’t care what you want. Think of it as an opportunity to see what the world looks like from the other side.”
Willow waited for further instructions while Shirley sized her up.
“Tonight, I want you to set up the ballroom for tomorrow’s racquetball awards ceremony. It should keep you busy until the end of your shift. Stay away from any members you see. And remember, you’re Will, or we’ll both be fired.”
Working alone suited Willow. She used a picture of the room configured for some other banquet as a guide. By ten p.m., everything looked pretty good. The most difficult part had been dragging the collapsible tables onto the raised band platform. Each table weighed as much as Willow. She slid them along the floor when possible, but the ordeal consumed time.
“Hey, dude,” Denim grunted. “You were supposed to be done hours ago.”
Willow shrugged. She seldom held grudges, but Denim occupied the top slot on her list of good-for-nothing people.
“My name’s Denim,” he said and held out a hand. “You must be Will. I heard Shirley hired you.”
Willow met his greeting with surprise and skepticism. Did he really buy the story about her brother? She judged him incapable of delivering the line so earnestly as a put-on.
They shook hands with a firm grip.
“Is your sister OK?”
Willow shrugged again and resumed adjusting the cushions on the folding chairs.
“There’re too many trophies for me to carry in one trip. Give me a hand.”
The venom in the glare she cast made Denim step back with his hands raised. “Dude. It’ll only take a minute. Sheesh.”
She gestured for him to lead the way and followed him out of the ballroom through the staff shortcut to the kitchen.
“Hold a sec, buddy,” he said. “Quick detour.” Denim rummaged inside the walk-in freezer until he emerged with a pair of frozen eclairs. “Second shift perk,” he grunted for explanation and ate both on the way out.
Willow shook her head and followed him through the maze. When he turned into to the fitness area, Willow hesitated. After Shirley’s warning, Willow was reluctance to chance another meeting with members.
“Come on. The trophies are in the trainer’s office.”
It was after closing time, making the chance of encountering a member remote. The cleaning crew hadn’t arrived yet. “Is Denim testing me?” Willow wondered. He seemed so convinced she was a guy. It disturbed her on a basic level. He hadn’t seen her before with the short hair and new name tag, but he couldn’t be that stupid.
Denim proceeded into the men’s area, and Willow followed a few paces behind. Her decision became a turning point when the door swung closed behind her. Mr. Hamilton, Smalley, dangled upside down from a bar set into the masonry of the wall. His knees clamped to support his weight, and he groaned compressing his abdomen to lift his torso in an inverted sit-up. She observed with her mouth agape. Ropes of long muscle adorned his slender toned body. He had about zero percent body fat. He glanced at Willow watching him and grunted through another rep.
Willow thought, “Oh yes. This is what I came to see.”
“Come on,” Denim repeated with exasperation.
Willow closed her mouth and hurried to the small office across from the showers. Denim piled trophies into her outstretched arms and then grabbed two large ones to carry himself. “Alright, that’s it.” He nodded toward the door.
The trophies weighed more than Willow expected, and she trudged with deliberate steps to avoid dropping any. Slow progress toward the exit provided an opportunity to study the amazing man. Moisture glistened on Smalley’s chest, arms, and face. Sweat soaked clumps of hair hung like jagged spikes from his scalp. He gritted teeth and dug for reserve strength and one more complete hanging sit-up.
“Will one of you fetch my bag? I left it by the treadmills,” the member shouted to the staff members’ backs.
Denim turned and replied, “Sure thing sir,” and smiled.
With trophies aligned on the center table, Denim announced, “Well, that’s it for me today. Thanks for the help.”
“What about the member’s gym bag?” Willow asked with a falsetto deep voice that sounded implausible to her own ears.
“Shit. Go get it for him before he gets pissed. I’m late already,” Denim claimed without looking back.
An image of the skinny but fit man flashed across Willow’s mind. She’d never seen anything like his rippled abs and wiry arms. Instead of a 98-pound weakling, he was a 98-pound body builder, she deduced. There was no way for her to bring his bag into the locker room. It wasn’t right.
“It’s not a big deal,” she tried to convince herself. “He’s dressed. I’m supposed to be a man.” Shirley wouldn’t want a complaint about bad service. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s a license to peek.” Willow’s whole body trembled when she lifted the ugly brown corduroy sack. Her breath caught in her chest as she pushed open the door. “There’s no turning back now,” she whispered to herself.
The bar hung forsaken on the wall. A pair of discarded bicycle shorts lay on a bench not far away. The room appeared deserted, but Willow guessed where the member went when she heard the first spray of water. She knew she should drop the bag beside the shorts and walk away. She should count herself lucky to avoid another interaction with a member. She should go home, but pent-up curiosity made her hesitate. She craved a better mental image than Dr. MacMillan to use when constructing her fantasy man. If she didn’t peer around the corner, regret would haunt her for a lifetime.
“I brought your bag, sir,” she said in a deep voice.
Smalley lathered his hair under one of the shower heads on the wall across an open space from the entrance. He didn’t face her. Even his back displayed cords of strength. Sudsy water streamed over his small rounded buttocks. Muscles in his thighs tightened.
“What’s that?” he said without turning.
“I brought your bag, sir,” she repeated.
“Just set it down.” He rinsed the last of the shampoo and looked over his shoulder. “I didn’t see any towels on the warmer. Will you toss a few on the rack?”
“Yes, sir,” she replied as Smalley adjusted the water.
It required supreme will power to operate her legs in a slow retreat from the scene in front of her. She never saw or even imagined a sight as compelling as the one confronting her. “Turn around. Please. Turn around. I just want one glimpse of the front,” she pleaded in silent supplication to whatever god might grant her desire.
The warmer had been off for at least an hour, but she toggled its switch and arranged four towels on its bars. She lingered, searching for excuses to talk to Smalley, and in the end, she stood in the passage to the shower. Flouting a taboo made her feel tingly. “Can I get you anything else?” she called to him across ten feet of tiled floor.
He turned at the waist. “No, that should be it.” He shut off the water. Willow held her breath. His half step backward produced a hollow sensation in her stomach. Contracting muscles in his legs and tightening buttocks signaled further motion, and it happened. For slow seconds, the man walked towards Willow. The only soft inches of his body flopped and bounced and wagged. He returned her look of amazement with incomprehension that transformed into a gracious acceptance of the compliment her gaze conveyed.
As he passed her on his way to the towels, he said, “I hope I’m not keeping you.”
“I need to stay and clean after you finish,” Willow lied. “The towel warmer takes some time to cycle off,” she improvised, “and everything needs to be restocked.”
“I’m sorry. I know the gym closes at ten, but I lose track of time.” He wiggled his ass under a towel. He dropped the wet one in a hamper and grabbed another to wrap around his waist.
For an instant, Willow saw his body in profile. Something about the man melted her insides. Dressed in baggy clothes, he looked weak and effeminate. Nude, his slender frame glowed with healthy sensuality. Willow endured lust-induced panting. She felt lightheaded.
“I’ll be out of your way in a jiffy,” he said as those oversized pleated dress pants concealed his legs.
When only his chest remained exposed, Willow marveled at his narrow waist.
“There you go.” He smiled and slapped her on the back. “The room’s all yours now.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said and meant it.
Willow worked busboy duty during the awards banquet the next day. “Fill water glasses, clear the tables, act like a man,” her delusional supervisor instructed.
Countless boring speeches filled the time after the meal while guests nibbled from dessert plates. Willow leaned against a wall holding her pitcher in case anyone looked thirsty. Another girl, the attendant who had come to Willow’s defense that day in the women’s changing room, wandered over to chat.
“I heard you got your eye full in the men’s area last night,” Stephanie teased.
“Who told you that?”
“Frank, from the cleaning crew. He saw Will.”
“It was no big deal.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard the same thing.” Stephanie giggled.
Willow wondered what the exchange meant but had to wait to find out. One of the kids sitting at a table with parents lifted a glass seeking a refill. By the time Willow returned to her station, Stephanie had disappeared into the kitchen.
Throughout the night, Willow suspected some of the lady guests flirted with her, but she mistrusted her instincts for that sort of thing. She was certain nobody ever flirted with her before, and attention now hardly flattered her. “I’m an unthreatening man,” she mused to herself. “I wonder if it’s better than being an overlooked woman?”
It still didn’t seem possible anybody believed Shirley’s story. Stephanie knew the truth, and there had to be others. Denim, however, might be as stupid as he looked, Willow conceded. The real question, one Willow forced from her mind the past twenty-four hours, was about Smalley. Did he perceive an innocent young woman admiring his physique, or did he assume she was a gay man? Either way, would he complain?
The more Willow dwelled on the subject, the more she disliked passing as a man. It stung her ego. She wracked her brain searching for the last time she felt feminine. It was the car ride home with paint in her hair. She shivered in the wet muscle shirt and leaned forward into the full blast of the car’s heater. The shirt concealed nothing, so she crossed arms over her breasts to achieve a degree of modesty. In her mind, every passing car contained men who ogled. Willow knew it wasn’t true, but imagining it strengthened her shaken self image even as it creeped her out. Her ego craved the leer she’d spent years avoiding. She wanted confirmation that people did see her as a woman.
The ballroom cleared, and Shirley arrived pushing a large hamper on wheels. “I told the kitchen staff to go home, and we have a while before the cleaners get here.”
Willow looked at her boss and expected to be fired for peeping at Smalley.
“Stephanie and I will help you tear down the tables. Then I’d like you to join us in my office for a drink.”
The offer increased Willow’s dread. It might be nice, civilized even, to get fired over a drink. She had never been fired before and never imagined it would go down that way. She had quit her last job as soon as she learned she was hired at the club. With the axe hanging over her head, Willow worked in silence. What could she say in the situation?
The three women trooped through the staff corridors behind the hamper. Shirley abandoned it outside the laundry and then ushered the others back to her office. “What can you tell me?” The Assistant Manager looked toward Stephanie.
“Cassie has a crush on Will.”
“Really? That’s a good sign. What else?”
“You heard about the incident last night?”
“Here it comes,” Willow thought and shuddered while the others talked as if she wasn’t there.
“Will came out of the locker room after Mr. Hamilton showered. Frank Duster saw her.”
Shirley glared at Willow. “I told you to stay away from the members. What were you doing in there?”
“He asked me to bring his bag to him. I couldn’t refuse without being suspicious.”
Shirley looked back to Stephanie.
“Mrs. Woolport didn’t say anything where I could hear,” Stephanie reported.
“So, we’re in the clear. Let’s have a drink.”
“Thank you,” Willow squeaked as she accepted a tiny glass of rum.
“Man up,” the Assistant Manager choked out after swallowing her shot in one gulp.
“So, what did you see in the men’s area?” Stephanie asked.
“It was no big deal.”
Shirley and Stephanie laughed out loud in reply. “Drink up and give us the details.”
Willow burned her throat on a sip and elaborated, “He’s got an amazing body.”
“He’s got these cute round butt cheeks and muscles everywhere. I bet he works out every day.”
Stephanie and Shirley exchanged glances.
“Do you think it’s true? That he used to be a woman?”
“God, no!” Willow gasped.
“Did he look normal – you know – down there?”
“Definitely,” Willow said but sounded shaken.
“There have been rumors flying for years,” Shirley explained.
“Was he circumcised?” Stephanie asked. “I’ve heard they always make a foreskin so the oddity of the head doesn’t show.”
“It’s too much trouble to make a fake foreskin,” Shirley contradicted.
Both women looked at Willow who sputtered, “I, um, think it was circumcised.”
“Proves nothing,” Stephanie insisted. “Was it as small as everyone says?”
“What do you mean?”
“How do you think he got his nickname?”
In response to Willow’s bewildered expression, the two other women said, “Smalley,” in unison.
“I don’t think it’s too small,” Willow mumbled.
“He didn’t have an erection – did he?” Stephanie asked.
“You can only tell when they’re hard,” Stephanie remarked.
Shirley downed another shot and refilled Stephanie’s glass. “So, what’s it like being a man?”
Willow clutched her half-full glass to her chest. “I think some of the guests flirted with me.”
Shirley looked to Stephanie, who nodded.
“You still walk like a girl,” Shirley said.
“I am a girl.”
“You better not be, at least until I find a wig that will work. I tell you what, if you remain Will for a week, I’ll give you this.” Shirley opened a drawer and displayed a tag bearing the name “Willow.”
“Are you taking bets?” Stephanie challenged.
“As long you stay away from members, it’ll work,” Shirley assured Willow.
The next few days passed without incident. Willow’s four-to-six hour evening shifts barely paid enough to cover her share of the rent, so she volunteered to work every day, trying to make the best of it.
Denim bumped into her a few times and grunted, “Dude.” Willow panicked when a bus boy named Kevin flirted with her, but afterward, she decided he must be gay. He glanced at her crotch and called her “big boy.” She felt complimented in a crazy way.
At home, Willow stooped under a scalding shower spray with her eyes closed and compared the only two men she had ever seen naked. Dr. MacMillan appeared to be in his mid-fifties, pudgy, hairy, and more scary than arousing. Smalley looked much younger, half the weight, smooth, and lust-inspiring. No man outside of fantasy ever inspired Willow’s lust until she spied Smalley.
A loud banging on the bathroom door startled the young woman from her contemplation. “Willow! Your boss is on the phone and says it’s urgent.”
“Just a sec. Hand it in.” Willow stepped out of the shower and accepted the phone on its long cord.
“This is Willow.”
“Get dressed. I’ll be there in twenty minutes. Mr. Gauss wants to meet Will.”
“I can’t talk. Be ready.”
Willow wrapped a towel around herself and handed the phone back to its owner who asked, “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Willow sighed. She remembered Shirley worrying about police involvement if the charade failed. “They’re probably going to fire me or arrest me or something.”
“Arrest you? What did you do?”
“I went into the men’s locker room.”
“What? By mistake?”
“No,” Willow confessed, “I did it on purpose.”
“What are you going to do?”
“It’ll be a relief. You have no idea how stressed I’ve been lately.”
“We wondered. We hardly see you anymore. Are you going to be OK?”
“Yeah. I’ll call you from jail if I need bail.”
“Oh Willow, you should have told us.”
“They won’t call the cops. Shirley has as much or more riding on this as me. She’ll fire me and then hush it up, and I’ll beg for my old job selling clothes as soon as I get back.”
Shirley claimed ignorance when Willow demanded to know what Mr. Gauss wanted. “Just remember you’re Will, and you never met him before.”
The two women rode in silence with Willow dreading another deceit-infused meeting and Shirley gripping the wheel with white knuckles.
“Why is it so urgent?”
“Mr. Gauss insists on meeting all the staff after their first week. He chewed me out for not introducing Will. There has to be more, though. He insisted I put you on the day schedule, and tomorrow wasn’t soon enough.”
“Is he usually so impatient?”
“No.” They drove in silence.
“Try to look bigger.” It was the last advice Shirley gave before calling her boss to announce Will’s arrival.
The General Manager strode into Shirley’s office a few minutes later. “Hello, Will,” he smiled and shook hands.
Willow remembered to make her shake firm but doubted it helped. Her thin hand disappeared in Mr. Gauss’ bear paw. He looked at her and asked, “How do you like it here? It’s been what, two weeks?” He turned to his assistant.
“About that,” she confirmed.
“Well?” He rotated back to Willow.
“It’s been nerve-wracking, but I’m getting used to it,” Willow answered with complete honesty and an unconvincing deep voice.
“You’ve already caught the eye of some of our members.”
“Here it comes,” Willow thought.
“That’s not always a good thing. But one of our most influential members, a leader on our board of directors, in fact, asked for you personally.”
Willow learned nothing form Shirley’s face. When she maintained her silence, Mr. Gauss continued.
“Mr. Hamilton requires a personal assistant while he trains for his upcoming triathlon. It’s a big accomplishment for him to even enter, but I shouldn’t say too much. He’ll explain. You’ll work days for the foreseeable future and have only one assignment: meet Mr. Hamilton’s needs. Do you understand?”
“Not completely, sir.”
“You’ll do fine. He already thinks highly of you.” Mr. Gauss moved to depart but said, as an afterthought, “Say hello to your sister for me.”
Shirley rolled with the new development as if she expected it all along. “Mr. Hamilton may already be here. If so, you shouldn’t keep him waiting. Ask Denim at the desk.”
“What if he’s, ah, in the shower or something?”
“Don’t get your hopes up.” Shirley frowned. “You’ve been there before. Stay as inconspicuous as possible and remember to be Will.”
“I can’t do it anymore.” Willow heart pounded.
“Suck it up. You made your bed. Now sleep in it.”
Willow recoiled from the injustice of Shirley’s claim.
“Go! You’re wasting time.”
Willow slumped and surrendered as Shirley half-shoved her out of the office. “You must have made one hell of an impression in the showers,” the Assistant Manager speculated before closing the office door.
For the third time, Willow pushed into the men’s area. It got easier each time, she learned. Half a dozen members changed clothes and ignored her presence. An attendant had confirmed over the phone that Smalley was in the sauna. With cement shoes, the young woman trudged across the room and knocked on the closed cedar door. When nobody answered, she mustered the courage to walk in.
“Will, it’s good to see you. Have you had a chance to talk with Fred?”
Willow stared without comprehension.
“Oh, yes, sir. He sent me to assist you.”
“Good. Thanks. I hope you don’t mind. I’ve known most of the attendants for a while, and I can’t say I picture any of them, ah, in a personal capacity.”
Willow started to object, but Smalley interrupted. “I mean no offense to them. I, let’s say, have high hopes for the new guy. That’s all.”
“Yes, sir. How can I help?”
“I’ll be in here for another fifteen minutes, and then I’ll shower. Since we have some time, tell me about yourself, if you don’t mind.”
“There isn’t much to tell,” Willow said. Heat made her perspire, and combined with humidity, dampened her uniform. A wet oval appeared between her breasts.
“You’ll ruin your uniform in here. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Just wait for me outside the shower area so I can explain what I need.”
“Yes, sir.” Willow backed out of the sauna. She obeyed his instructions and witnessed a parade of men coming and going. Not that she kept score, but her tally of first-hand penis observations climbed up to an even ten. She marveled at the variety of sizes and shapes, and her vague understanding of circumcision clarified.
Smalley tossed his sweaty towel from the sauna into her surprised grasp and sauntered into the shower. Yes, he was circumcised, she confirmed. By the time Willow returned from dropping the thing in a hamper, Smalley had already completed a quick rinse and turned to walk toward her. She noticed it was smaller than the others she’d seen, but it was also less frightening. The floppy bits are borderline ugly, after all, so maybe less is more.
The subject of her admiration bounded out of the shower grinning. “We’re going to be late for our lunch,” he said in a way that worried Willow.
She leaned against a wall staring at the floor to avoid any awkward eye contact with the dozen men in various states of undress. Smalley didn’t seem to need any assistance, and that made her presence even more ridiculous.
“What am I doing?” she asked herself, but when she closed her eyes, the sight of a smile on the way out of the shower returned. “I could get used to that smile,” she though, “and that body.” Visions of showering naked with him jumped to the front of her list of fantasies to explore later in her bed – with no chance of actually being seen – or ridiculed.
Lunch took place in a mansion on the hill. Smalley drove his Audi a few blocks along a street lined with tall pines while Willow shrank into a leather seat. Metal gates opened as the car approached, and a long twisting driveway lead to a paved courtyard.
“You didn’t tell me about yourself,” her chauffeur reminded her. “I hope to learn all about you over lunch.” He smiled and stepped out of the vehicle.
Willow followed behind, gawking at the stone structure looming above the yard. Her entire apartment could fit in the entrance foyer.
“This is my parent’s house,” Smalley said. “We’ll eat in the kitchen. Cassandra usually makes sandwiches.” He led the way through a door into a butler’s pantry, past an impressive china collection, and into the most beautiful kitchen Willow had ever seen. Large slabs of dark gray slate paved the floor under birch cabinets topped with soapstone.
“This is my dorky sister, Cassandra,” her guide gestured with evident pride.
“Hey,” Cassandra said with a prune-face displayed for her brother and returned to chopping an onion.
The age difference between Smalley and his gangly teen sister surprised Willow. The girl’s curly black hair contained patches of colors from the rainbow as if she tried every available dye. A lip piercing and ratty old jeans jacket didn’t quite make the punk look convincing. Something about the girl still betrayed softness.
“Call me Cassie,” she suggested. “I hate my name.”
“It’s pretty. It suits you.”
Cassandra searched Willow’s eyes until Willow remembered to wipe the charming effeminate smile from her face. As lips compressed, emotional distance expanded. How did the two women become so suddenly close that withdrawal could be felt?
The threesome enjoyed lunch, chatting about Cassandra’s favorite television series. Willow had never heard of it, but it sounded interesting. Smalley leaned back in his chair displaying his wry masculine half-smile. Cassandra emphasized her words with wild hand gestures that Willow subconsciously mimicked. By the time Smalley announced the need to depart, Willow had a new friend. Cassandra ran out of the house to shove a video tape from the TV series into Willow’s hands. “Take your time,” Cassandra said, “We’ll talk about it when you bring it back.”
In the car, Smalley remarked, “That was a nice touch, lending the tape.”
“Now Cassandra is certain you’ll come back if only to return it. She’ll get another chance to hook you.”
“She’s not interested in me.”
“Oh yes, she is. I brought you here because she wanted to meet you. She’s seen you around the club.”
“I have no idea,” Smalley answered shaking his head, but he grinned.
“Wow. What should I do?”
“It depends. Do you like her? Would you like to escort her to the Valentine’s Day Cotillion?”
“I like her, but um, I’m speechless.”
“Listen.” Smalley paused to form his next words. “Cassandra has always been a tomboy and never showed interest in the debutante scene. This is her last eligible year, and I can tell she wants to attend. All she needs is an escort.”
Willow’s stomach fell. “I’m too old for her.”
“She’s eighteen. Just think about it. Ask her later. She might not want to go, or she might not want to go with you.”
Willow looked into her lap.
“Did I sting your ego?”
“No,” she replied. “I’ve never been on a date is all.”
“You can borrow my black tuxedo. We’re about the same size, and you can have it altered.”
They drove across town in silence until Smalley parked on the edge of a deserted beach. “I’m training for a triathlon, and the swimming leg is my weakest. I have wetsuits in the trunk. I need you to pace me on a jet ski in case I can’t continue or have hypothermia or something.”
Willow followed him to the back of the car where he popped the trunk. “The water’s nearly frozen this time of year.” Alarm registered in Willow’s objection.
“I’ll be fine in the wetsuit. You should be OK on the jet ski.”
Without further discussion, he stripped bare right there in the parking lot. Frigid wind gusts off the lake turned him blue before he managed to zip the inner seal. It took him a while using talcum powder to ease into tight legs and arms.
Willow shivered in her work uniform and once again marveled at the contours of his body. She watched while he struggled to get into the rubberized material, and his penis shrank before her eyes. It recoiled into his body for warmth. All too soon, a second wetsuit lay draped over her shoulder.
“Change into yours. I’ll get one of my jet skis from the storage barn across the street.” As he walked away, Smalley called back, “take off your underwear, too. If it gets wet, it’ll hold the water against your skin. It’s better to be bare, trust me.”
Willow’s mind reeled. She dove into the back seat of the Audi and stripped as fast as possible to avoid disaster if he returned too soon. Her frilly pink panties posed a dilemma. She wanted to keep them, but Smalley’s warning sounded serious. If she took them off, where could she hide them? It took forever to get into the suit, and her heart raced in panic. In the end, she pulled the zipper over her small breasts and up to her chin. She kept the panties on.
Smalley towed a two-wheeled trailer across the road and into the parking lot using brute strength. His legs strained, and his shoulders hunched. He grit his teeth to drag the wheels through a part of the lot covered by wind-blown sand.
“That was a good warm-up,” he grunted. “Put on your boots and gloves.” He nodded his head to the open trunk. “Help me drag this beast down to the water.”
Willow didn’t think she contributed much to the effort, but the two of them rolled and dragged the trailer into the shallow surf. The jet ski slid off with the help of gravity once straps unlocked. It splashed backward into the water, and Smalley jumped on. He fiddled for a while before the thing roared to life belching blue smoke.
“Jump on. I’ll show you how to drive.”
Willow climbed behind him, but he said, “No. You get in front.”
Once rearranged, safety between his outstretched arms gave her confidence. He pressed against her back showing throttle settings as they navigated a figure eight.
“You have the hang of it. I’ll drag the trailer up on the beach and close up the car. Practice if you want.”
In spite of the cold, Willow loved the sensation of power throbbing between her legs. She tried full speed for a few seconds, but freezing water kicked up to her face, and the wind made her ears burn. Smiles and laughter greeted Smalley upon his return.
He swam for two hours without a break and then climbed up behind Willow for the return trip. The jet ski ran out of gas, but Willow managed to ground it on the beach. They walked back to the trailer which by then was hitched to a beat up old pickup truck. Cassandra had the motor running and heat on, so Willow and Smalley squeezed onto the bench seat for the short drive along the beach to collect the jet ski.
“Where did you get the truck?” Smalley asked.
“It’s the gardener’s,” Cassandra said.
“Damn, I should have thought to borrow it.”
“You’re stupid enough to swim in the lake in February. I took it for granted you were too stupid to plan ahead.”
Smalley shook his head in dismay. He unzipped his suit to the waist enabling warm air to dry his chest. Willow wanted to do the same. She wanted completely out of the damn thing because her buttocks were numb with cold.
Once everything was back in the barn, Smalley suggested Cassandra give Will a ride home while he returned the truck. “Your clothes are in there anyway,” he observed.
Willow asked what to do with the wetsuit, and he told her to keep it for next time.
“Sorry about that,” Cassandra said when they were out on the main road again. “I would have helped him, but I had a dance lesson after lunch.”
“Have you taken lessons very long?”
“I just started. I’m trying not to embarrass myself at the cotillion.”
“Oh? You already have a date?”
“No, but hope springs eternal.” She smiled with warmth, contradicting her severe attire.
“I don’t know how to dance,” Willow admitted and hoped that might end the subject.
“There’s still time. You could come to my lessons.”
“Then who would freeze with your brother?”
Willow directed Cassandra to a low-rent district and jumped out of the Audi holding her club uniform wadded in a ball.
“This is your apartment?”
“Yeah. I’m on the third floor. Thanks for the ride.”
“You’re welcome,” Cassandra said as Willow trudged stiff-legged to the stairs.
After a long hot shower that included an unfulfilling attempt to masturbate, Willow recounted the day to her roommates. She had to back up and explain the whole situation. They acted like school girls making her describe the men’s showers multiple times. Even though Willow felt dead tired, her roommates dragged her to a discount store. They bought a package of boy’s white briefs, some boy’s jeans, and a couple of unisex t-shirts. Willow wanted to be prepared if she had to be Will away from work or found a sudden need to shed underwear.
The roommates thought it was hilarious and compelled her to model the briefs for them. She looked depressingly convincing in jeans and a t-shirt. One of her roommates teased, “I’d hit that,” and they all laughed.
Smalley met Willow at the club the next morning. He spent half an hour in the sauna and then showered. Willow hated being idle, but managed to sit on her hands out of sight in the staff area for most of the time. She entered the men’s room in time to catch Smalley pulling on his socks. She almost got out without incident, but a couple of young men, guests or children of members, started wrestling in the shower. One guy had the other in a headlock. The regular attendant pulled Willow in to help him break up the fight. The guy in the headlock had a raging erection. It looked long enough to stretch past his bellybutton. Willow gasped at its size and the way it pointed toward.
“It happens sometimes,” Smalley said when he saw Willow’s look.
“Some of the younger guys can’t take a compliment.” He winked.
“You mean they were fighting because of the – you know.”
Willow drove the Audi while Smalley alternated jogging and running along the streets around the club. They ended up at his parents’ house again at lunch time. Smalley took another shower while Willow and Cassandra talked about punk music Willow never heard. Over lunch, Smalley asked to see what his sister learned from dance lessons so far.
Willow watched Smalley and Cassandra dance awkwardly to the Vienna Waltz. “You give it a try,” Smalley insisted and pulled Willow out of her chair.
Cassandra’s hand felt warm in Willow’s. They danced with more grace than Smalley displayed, and Smalley said Willow must be a natural.
“I’ve never danced a waltz before,” she confessed.
Cassandra glowed when the song ended. She hugged Willow briefly as a “thank you” for the experience. Smalley looked at Willow with an urgent expression and mouthed the words, “Ask her.”
Willow blushed and took Cassandra’s hands in her own. Willow remained standing as Cassandra sat, and Willow said, “May I escort you to the Valentine’s Day Cotillion?” Willow regretted giving in to the impulse before Cassandra completed a demure acceptance.
Smalley ordered Willow to attend the afternoon dance lesson with Cassandra as part of her required service to him. The pair enjoyed the undivided attention of a sinuous old instructor, and every muscle in Willow’s body groaned after ninety minutes. Cassandra drove them to a coffee shop to chat.
“How do you like my brother?”
“I like him.”
“He talks about you.”
“That can’t be good.” Willow winced.
“Have you heard the rumors about him?”
“What rumors?” Willow hedged.
“That he’s a transexual.”
“He isn’t, is he?”
The two women sat at a table for two like any other couple on a date. “Where did the rumors come from?” Willow tried to sound disinterested, but she wasn’t entirely successful.
“He had cancer as a child. He’s been smaller than the other boys since he was ten. The treatments stunted his growth and might have delayed puberty or something.”
“I didn’t know that was possible.”
“It made him smaller and weaker even when he went into remission. He’s overcompensating now.”
“He doesn’t look at all like a woman,” Willow remarked.
Cassandra studied her date. “Well, anyway, he seems to like you.”
Willow nodded and changed the subject. “So, what do we do at a cotillion besides dance?”
“There’s a head table for the new debutantes. We’re introduced to society, and you’ll give me white roses. We’ll eat. There will be some speeches. Then we dance.”
It sounded simple enough. Willow silently thanked whatever god spared her from debutante balls and etiquette lessons when she was a teen. Some of her girlfriends had gone to school dances. An unattractive boy asked Willow to prom, but she had a built-in excuse to decline. She had attended a science fiction writer’s convention across the country instead.
The best part of the convention was a session in the hotel bar. Her favorite authors spouted bullshit trying to one-up each other. She would have enjoyed it longer if the bartender hadn’t kicked her out for being underage at the time.
Willow recounted the convention trip to Cassandra while struggling to mind her pronouns and keep the story gender neutral. Cassandra had read many of the same books Willow loved, and the conversation stretched well past dinnertime.
“Are you hungry?”
“Now that you mention it, I could eat a horse,” Willow said.
“Let me take you to dinner. My treat,” Cassandra offered.
“I better not. It doesn’t seem right.”
“Are you one of those men who can’t let a woman pay?”
“Obviously not,” Willow observed while gesturing to their table littered with cups and crumbs.
“Another time maybe?”
“I’d like it,” Willow said with sincerity. She enjoyed Cassandra’s company. “Could I trouble you for a ride home, though? The bus that stops here goes back downtown before I can circle back to my apartment.”
“Can I see your apartment?”
“It’s not a good idea. I have roommates. The place is a mess. It would make me uncomfortable.”
“OK,” Cassandra said, disappointed.
Willow assumed the next day would be bicycles since Smalley had already practiced the swimming and running legs of his triathlon. When he stepped out of the shower, Willow averted her eyes from the hypnotizing dance of his floppy bits. As he dressed, Smalley apologized for an unplanned diversion from routine. He needed to stop into work and resolve some dispute before he could resume training. Willow volunteered to meet him at the club in the afternoon, but he asked her to accompany him.
“It probably won’t take long, and I want to hear all about your date with my sister.”
Smalley parked in front of a nondescript one-story building not far from the club. He obtained a visitor’s badge for “Will” and accepted a lanyard festooned with multiple badges and keys for himself. They walked down an aisle between humming machines with the sound of pneumatic drills and air puffing all around. Stark lighting glinted off the sparkling clean floor.
At the back of the shop, Smalley knocked on a door labeled General Manager and let himself in. To Willow’s surprise, the General Manager turned out to be the dreaded Mrs. Woolport.
“Hello. You must be Will,” she said without moving from behind her desk. Her eyes squinted, appraising.
Willow gave a brief head nod of acknowledgement, parroting a gesture she’d seen performed by men at the club.
“What’s this about an injury?” Smalley seemed upset.
“As I said on the phone, I’ve already resolved the situation.” Mrs. Woolport spoke respectfully but seemed to think the matter was closed.
“Call them both in here, and then check for a security video of the incident.”
Mrs. Woolport followed directions, and within a few minutes, a middle-aged blind man and his twenty-something coworker sat in the visitor’s chairs while Smalley and Willow stood against a wall. The blind man’s guide dog gave Willow a brief sniff before settling on the floor at its master’s feet.
“You reported an injury this morning?”
“Yes sir,” the blind man confirmed. “I’m sorry.”
“I took the new dogs out of their pens one at a time to evaluate their temperaments. Kyle walked by with a Cell Dog, Bella, when the dog I was handling lunged.”
Smalley looked angry. His expression caused Willow to shuffle further from him. She could almost feel the heat of rage boiling under his calm veneer.
“Is Bella OK?”
“Yes sir,” Kyle said. “She has five stitches in her ear, but she’ll keep it, no thanks to Malcolm.”
“Your the one who reported the injury to the other dog?”
“Yes,” Malcolm confirmed again.
Smalley turned to Kyle and asked, “Why didn’t you report the injury?”
“I took Bella back to her kennel to evaluate the injury before calling a vet. I didn’t know how serious it was because there wasn’t much blood.”
Smalley addressed Malcolm again. “Why didn’t you control your dog, particularly an unfamiliar dog?”
“I’m sorry.” He bordered on tears. “I didn’t hear them approaching. I was giving the dog space to relax, and he just lunged. I had no warning.”
“Do you understand how serious this is? Bella has nearly completed training. A fear of other dogs could reverse everything. We can’t have aggression, fear, or even anxiety in a dog trusted with a person’s wellbeing. You, more than anyone, should know that.”
The blind man slumped with his head in his hands. His peaceful companion rested its muzzle on his lap. Kyle looked vindicated.
Mrs. Woolport returned with a video tape. She sat behind her desk to slide the tape into a VCR. Smalley walked behind her and watched over her shoulder. Willow crept close enough to see from an angle. The two dog handlers sat facing the desk awaiting judgement.
Video showed the events unfolding as described. The blind man sat cross legged on the floor outside a door marked “kennel.” He gripped a long lead affixed to a medium-sized mutt. The dog twitched and snapped its head from side to side, appearing agitated. There was no audio, but the blind man was to singing or humming to calm the dog.
Kyle walked into the frame, holding Bella close on a short leash. As the pair approached the kennel door, the dog launched at Kyle. Bella was in the wrong place at the wrong time when the gray dog bit first her neck and then her ear.
“Has the vet checked Bella’s neck, too?”
“Yes, sir,” the workers said in unison.
“Why didn’t you let Malcolm know you were about to pass?”
The younger worker shrugged. “I didn’t think about it.”
Smalley rubbed his forehead and sighed.
“I have another view,” Mrs. Woolport interjected.
“Just a minute,” Smalley seethed. “Mrs. Woolport,” he turned his piercing eyes on her. “You said you resolved the situation. What action have you taken?”
“I added the new dog to the list of unsuitable candidates. I reprimanded Malcolm, and I told Kyle to spend the rest of the day looking after Bella.”
“Alright. Show me the other video,” Smalley snapped.
The second video displayed a dimly-lit corridor lined with wire cages. After several seconds, Kyle walked into frame using a hose to spray the concrete floor. He worked efficiently, spraying and then pushing water toward one of the cages only partly in view. Based on the water flow, Willow assumed there must be a drain under the cage. Kyle looked around and then directed the water into the cage. He spent several minutes using his thumb over the end of the hose to increase the pressure. A huge grin on Kyle’s face could be interpreted as pride for a job well done.
“When was this video made?”
“Last night, sir,” said Mrs. Woolport.
“Let me guess.” Poison dripped from Smalley’s words. “Wicked was in that cage.”
“Yes sir. I checked before I returned.” Her voice was flat.
Smalley rubbed his forehead some more. He paced in the small office, making everyone nervous. When he stopped, he stood with a straight back and said, “Kyle, you’re fired. Don’t bother getting your things. I’ll have security bring them to you in the parking lot.”
“That’s not fair. You should fire him. I didn’t do anything.”
“You taunted and tortured a dog in my care. That hose puts out a lot of pressure, and the poor animal had no way to run or hide.”
The look on Kyle’s face confirmed his guilt.
“Out,” Smalley shouted.
Mrs. Woolport picked up the phone and dialed security before Kyle backed out the door.
Willow sat outside Mrs. Woolport’s office while she and Smalley attended to whatever matters remained. From her chair, Willow observed a dozen or more workers, almost all men, feeding material into enclosed machines. In the distance, several workers peered through microscopes at unidentifiable flat objects no bigger than playing cards.
“What do they make here?” she wondered, “and how are dogs involved?”
Smalley returned with Bella on a lead in one hand and the abused dog on a lead in the other. Both dogs trotted slightly behind the petite man. He stopped, and Bella sat. Wicked looked bewildered, but a sharp glare from Smalley resulted in a doggy ass planted on the floor with minute tail twitches, signaling an emotion Willow couldn’t interpret.
“Will, meet Bella and Wicked. He’s named after the ‘Wicked Witch of the West’ who also hates water.”
Willow smiled. “Can I pet them?”
“Sure. Just approach Wicked slowly.”
As the car pulled out of the lot, Bella curled in a ball on the floor, and Wicked rode on Willow’s lap with his head out the window. The drive to Smalley’s parents’ house didn’t take long, but Willow shivered from the early February wind through the window. Wicked’s obvious joy made her discomfort worthwhile.
“What’s a ‘Cell Dog?'”
Willow shouted over the wind noise. “You said ‘Cell Dog’ in the office.”
“Oh. Bella’s a Cell Dog. It’s a program where puppies left at the pound are given to prisoners to raise and train. It’s a reward for good behavior, and it helps the dogs.”
“That’s great,” Willow smiled. “Why have two separate prisons, one for dogs and another for humans? Put them together and everyone benefits.”
“Exactly,” Smalley agreed. “The prisoners develop marketable skills in animal handling and training. The dogs learn basic obedience which makes them more adoptable. My company gets Cell Dogs with the right temperament for advanced training as guide dogs.”
“What does your company do?”
“We make medical and assistive devices. Many of our employees are wounded veterans. Take that asshole, Kyle, for example. He lost part of his jaw in an explosion. You’d never know to look at him. We made his custom metal bone replacement and dental implants.”
“You can do that with dogs around?”
“Sure. The shop mostly grinds metal in precision milling machines. The metal is sterilized and prepared for internal use at another facility.”
Willow waited in silence as the car crunched gravel on the drive up to the house.
“The dogs were my idea,” Smalley confided. “I started the program as a teenager. I got the whole thing certified before I finished high school.”
“Is Wicked a Cell Dog, too?”
“No. He’s a search-and-rescue dog. He’s trained in wilderness tracking, natural disasters, mass casualty events, and locating missing people. He worked in Lebanon for several years, and I think he experienced the Beirut barracks bombing.”
Willow and Cassandra played with the dogs while Smalley went for his bike ride. Willow expected to pace him in the car, but Smalley wanted her to watch the dogs. He said Bella needed to get comfortable with Wicked to avoid lasting timidity. Cassandra said, “Wicked just needs to have some fun.”
When the dogs were exhausted from chasing toys and each other in the mansion’s sprawling backyard, Cassandra revealed an extensive kennel behind some evergreen bushes. “We’ll get you settled in nicely before din-din,” she babbled in baby-talk.
Willow gushed about Smalley’s company and the dogs to her roommates. One of them wondered if Willow was more in love with the dogs or Smalley. “I’m not in love,” Willow protested. Her roommates humored her.
The next day was Saturday and involved swimming again. Willow showed up in the men’s area already dressed in the wetsuit. It raised some eyebrows, but nobody commented until Smalley stepped out of the shower, bent over and laughed out loud. Willow blushed in part because she felt ridiculous, but also because of the way things bounced as he laughed. As Smalley dried his ankles, Willow watched his balls swing between his legs like clappers inside a bell. He tossed the damp towel at her, and she waddled to the hamper with a squeak-squeak sound of dry rubber on rubber.
“After the catastrophe last time, I thought I’d swim here at the club today,” Smalley explained. “I’m sorry. I should have told you.” He scanned up and down her skin-tight wetsuit and suggested, “Go change back into your uniform, or a bathing suit if you like. I’m going to need your help in the pool.”
Willow marched through the maze of corridors to the employee break room where her uniform waited in a locker. She sensed something wrong before she turned the last corner to discover Stephanie pressed against the wall by the time clock. Denim had a hand inside her uniform shirt and his mouth nibbling her neck. Both of them emitted sounds of pleasure.
Willow envied her coworkers. She’d heard about “grope and hope” sessions in the backs of cars. Her roommates sometimes teased her with more graphic descriptions. Willow’s fantasy man was prone to kissing a trail up her stomach before nuzzling her nipple. She wanted to feel it.
Stephanie made eye contact with Willow. Denim continued to grope as Willow frantically gestured with hands and mouthed the words, “I need to change.”
Stephanie rolled her eyes and pushed Denim away. He staggered back a step and wailed, “Oh, baby, don’t stop now.”
“Go back to work,” she chided. “We’re both on the clock. I’ll make it up to you later.”
Denim noticed Willow and said, “Shit, dude. What’s with the wetsuit? You are a freak.” He smacked Willow with a flat hand on her back and muttered, “This place gets more fucked up every day.”
As soon as Denim turned the corner, Willow begged, “Keep lookout for me. I need to change in a hurry. Please?”
“Alright, Will.” Stephane exaggerated the name. “Sometime soon you need to explain this.” She leaned against the corner where she could see down the hall as well as the break area.
Willow wasted no time grabbing her uniform from a locker. It took forever to wiggle out of the wetsuit, and Stephanie laughed more than once. Willow hopped on one foot trying to get her other leg free when Stephanie said, “I’m glad you really are a girl. I was starting to forget.”
Willow paused. She stood naked with the cumbersome suit piled at her feet. Stephanie didn’t look away, and Willow blushed. Willow’s hand, outside of conscious control, brushed her exposed breasts before she noticed and withdrew it. Stephanie raised eyebrows again when Willow dressed in white men’s briefs.
“Why Denim?” Willow wondered aloud.
“Yeah, but he’s dumb as a post.”
“I’m not interested in his brains,” Stephanie mumbled.
Willow pulled the uniform shirt over her head.
“You’re very pretty,” Stephanie confided. “You hide yourself under clothes that don’t fit, I don’t know why. If you were a few inches taller, you could be a model.”
Willow blushed. “Thanks,” she said, “for the compliment and for helping.” Willow gave Stephanie a brief hug on the way out. The gesture surprised both of them.
The indoor pool ranged from three feet deep to ten at the far end. A nearby hot tub bubbled, and fog swirled over the heated water. Willow found Smalley engrossed in conversation with Mrs. Woolport at the shallow end.
“Hello, Will,” Mrs. Woolport greeted him. “How’s your sister?”
“She wishes she could be here.”
Mrs. Woolport said, “I’ll bet,” and then asked Smalley, “Have you met Will’s sister, Willow?”
“No. Not yet.”
“I’ll have to introduce you sometime. I think she’ll make an impression.”
Smalley looked sideways and seemed to wonder what inside joke he missed. He changed the subject. “Will, I plan to swim sixty laps today. That should be one-point-five kilometers. I need you to keep count for me.” He kicked off the wall and used an efficient freestyle stroke to propel himself away.
“He’s very fit,” Mrs. Woolport observed.
“Oh, yes,” Willow breathed and then remembered who she was talking to.
“I know you don’t have a brother.”
“Why haven’t you said anything? I’ve been put through the ringer trying to play Will.”
“Once I realized you really are a girl, back in the changing room when Shirley had the audacity to spout that bullshit, it amused me to see what would happen.”
“It’s been two weeks.”
“You mean you haven’t enjoyed your time with Mr. Hamilton?”
“Two,” Willow shouted and Smalley performed a flip turn. It took her a moment to connect the dots and remember Smalley’s real name, Gregory Hamilton.
“Are you going to tell him? Why haven’t you called the police or gotten Shirley and me fired, or something?”
“Shirley is a tough pill to swallow, but I admire her in some ways,” Mrs. Woolport confided. “I think the world of young Mr. Hamilton. He is the son of my boss after all. When he got involved with you, I didn’t want to interfere or create a scandal.”
“Four,” Willow shouted. “I haven’t been sleeping. It’s been nerve-wracking.”
“Really? I envy you. There’s quite a few members I’d like to see in the shower.”
“I’m getting numb to it.” Willow realized the truth as she said it.
“You’re in love with him, aren’t you?”
“But nothing. He needs to meet Willow. He deserves the truth.”
“It’s more complicated than that. Cassandra is involved now. Oh, God; I’m escorting her to the cotillion on Valentine’s Day.”
The two women watched Smalley complete lap sixteen. Willow longed to tell Smalley the truth but feared the consequences. She didn’t want to humiliate Cassandra. She didn’t want to see betrayal in Smalley’s eyes.
“I’ll arrange everything with Shirley. It’s time for Mr. Hamilton to meet Willow.”
Mrs. Woolport swam a few leisurely circuits of the pool while Smalley reached lap forty. The older woman left the pool at the other end, and it was all Willow could do not to chase after her. Willow needed to believe everything would work out. “Forty-eight,” she yelled louder than necessary.
Denim approached Willow in the men’s area. He waved his hand in front of her face, breaking her reverie as she stared into the open shower area for the second time that day. Smalley’s balls huddled tight against his body forming a shelf to support his short penis. “It’s amazing how his balls change shape and size,” she thought as Denim distracted her.
“Shirley needs you right away, dude. I’ll attend to Mr. Hamilton for the rest of the day. And dude, try to be a little gayer next time.”
Willow found it difficult to pull her eyes away from Smalley’s scrumptious body, but she had to be careful. People noticed her fascination.
“I should never have hired you,” Shirley said for the tenth time. “You’ve been nothing but trouble.”
Willow kept silent. Shirley led her into a ramshackle cluttered shop at the edge of a strip mall. It was the third shop they’d visited since Shirley had dragged Willow to a car and set out on her mission.
“Try this one,” Shirley commanded after wincing at the price tag. Willow covered her short hair with the net she had acquired at the first shop. The new wig wasn’t quite the right color. It was closer to platinum blonde than Willow’s natural honey color, but the length was right, and the style was similar to Willow’s former wavy curls.
“We’ll take it,” Shirley said. The next stop was a hair salon, but Shirley dragged Willow by her hand into a back room.
“This is where I learned to apply makeup,” Shirley said in a wistful way.
Willow looked around. “What is this place?”
“It was my home away from home when I was your age. The woman who runs the place took pity on me.”
“What do you mean?” Willow’s curiosity got the best of her.
Shirley rubbed Willow’s face with a warm damp cloth and then patted her dry. “I was almost as clueless as you, but at least I had an excuse. Hold still.”
Willow didn’t like the way Shirley applied the light blue eye shadow. She feared having her eye poked out by the eye liner pencil. After mascara and blush, Willow didn’t recognize herself. “It isn’t too outlandish,” she admitted. “You learned all this when you were my age?”
Shirley sighed. “I was a very late bloomer.”
“What do you mean?”
“I didn’t start transitioning until I was twenty. I was a horrible mess during those years. You should know better than most. You’ve been passing for a week now.”
Willow’s blank expression elicited a sparkle in Shirley’s eye. “You haven’t figured it out yet?”
“Willow, I’m genderqueer. I’m still figuring out what gender even means to me.”
“You’re a man?”
“No.” Shirley sounded cross. “I’m a pre-op transsexual, and because I’m genderqueer, I’ll probably be pre-op my whole life.”
“I’ve never heard of genderqueer. What does it mean?”
“I don’t fit any standard gender identity. I just know I wasn’t meant to be the gender society assigned at my birth.”
“So, do you like boys or girls?”
Willow’s mouth hung open.
“Come on. You have an appointment with destiny. Remember to be Willow when you wear the wig.”
Shirley almost shoved Willow out of the car in front of Smalley’s parents’ house. The car kicked up dust as Shirley sped away before Willow could even knock on the door.
“Hello,” Willow mumbled when Cassandra answered.
“Oh, you must be Willow. Will’s told me so much about you.”
Willow looked shocked at the lie. “No, I haven’t,” she thought.
“Come on in,” Cassandra said. “Can I get you something?”
“I’m supposed to meet Mr. Hamilton,” Willow stammered the line Shirley made her memorize. “And borrow a tuxedo for Will.”
“Oh, right,” Cassandra chirped brightly, contrasting with her all-black ensemble that included unlaced army boots. “You look so much like your brother.”
Willow followed Cassandra up the stairs to a part of the house she’d never seen. “Gregory is in here,” she said as she knocked and opened the door.
Smalley sat nude on the edge of a king-sized bed with his eyes closed. Earphones played loud enough to make unfamiliar classical music audible across the room. An index finger and thumb encircled and stroked his shaft. Seconds stretched into eternity. Willow noticed it was a bit bigger when erect.
“I’m so sorry,” Cassandra squeaked.
Smalley opened his eyes in horror while Cassandra wrestled Willow out of the room. She pulled and pushed Willow to the stairs muttering, “Oh, shit,” under her voice.
“Damn. I hope that’s something we’ll laugh about someday,” Cassandra joked without conviction as the two women sat across the kitchen table.
“Are you looking forward to the cotillion?” Willow changed the subject.
“I am,” Cassandra confessed. “I didn’t think I’d ever want to go, but I guess the right escort makes all the difference. Does Will talk about me at all?”
Willow wondered how to reply. If she made Will sound too interested, it only compounded the eventual letdown. But, how could she discourage the earnest teen?
“Will doesn’t say much about girls,” Willow hedged.
“Did he tell you we took dancing lessons together?”
“Two lessons,” Willow corrected.
“Did he say he enjoyed the lessons? I know I did. He put his hand on my hip, and he pulled me close.” Cassandra sounded drunk with lust.
Smalley entered the kitchen wearing a robe and holding a tuxedo in a dry cleaning bag. “Shirley mentioned something about you collecting the tuxedo today,” Smalley said, avoiding eye contact with either woman.
He thrust his arm at Willow, and she stood to accept the heavy bag.
“Well, this isn’t awkward,” Cassandra muttered.
“Cufflinks are in a box inside the bag.”
“Thank you,” Willow said, prompting Smalley to look at her more closely.
“You look like your brother,” he grumbled.
“He talks about you all the time,” Willow blurted to fill silence.
“What does he say?” Cassandra asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Willow backpedaled. “You impressed him, I guess.”
There was an awkward silence.
“Thanks again,” she raised the bag, “for the tux and everything. I know he’s looking forward to the dance.” Willow tossed the last line to placate Cassandra.
Willow hurried out, then wondered how she was going to get home when she stood in the Hamilton’s front door and stared at an empty courtyard.
“How did you get here?” Cassandra asked.
“Shirley from the club dropped me off. I don’t know if she’s coming back.”
“I’d give you a ride home,” Cassandra offered, “but I have to be here to meet my mother in about fifteen minutes.”
Willow stared at her feet.
“Let me see if Gregory can give you a ride.” Cassandra ran up the stairs before Willow said anything.
“I’m sorry I interrupted you,” Willow assured Smalley as she settled into the familiar bucket seats.
“Yeah, I’m sorry too,” Smalley said.
“You don’t have to be embarrassed. It wasn’t a big deal.” As she said the words, she thought how much of a big deal it was to her. She wanted to see him hard again. His erection started something churning in her loins. She closed her eyes and licked her lips remembering.
Smalley didn’t say anything, so Willow continued. “Everyone does it.”
The painful silence continued.
“You have an amazing body.”
Smalley glanced at her, but remained quiet.
When Smalley turned onto the street to Willow’s apartment, she stammered, “It, ah, was very sexy.” Her face burned.
Smalley stopped in her parking lot, and as Willow stepped out of the car, she wondered how Smalley knew to bring her there?
“Thank you,” Willow called to Smalley as he reached over from the driver’s side to pull the passenger door closed.
“You’re welcome,” he replied and drove away.
Willow recounted the traumatic day to her roommates. She cried in the shower as she washed away the makeup. Smalley’s cold tone of voice made Willow’s stomach ache. “What a great first impression,” she lamented. At the same time, two fingers stroked up and down in her imagination. Sometimes, they were her fingers.
Willow rode the bus to the club. Smalley’s tuxedo fit reasonably well. It was tight in the hips and loose across her shoulders. Other passengers stared at her sitting alone, dressed to the nines, with a dozen white roses in her lap. The flowers had set Willow back two days’ wages. Counting a day off for the cotillion, the affair was costing her three days wages. At least she was getting paid. Shirley amended Willow’s time card to show eight hours every day in spite of her erratic schedule.
The young men were arranged alphabetically according to their dates’ names. Cassandra Hamilton placed Willow in the middle of the pack. A deep baritone voice announced each debutante, and her escort guided her to a seat at the high table before seating himself at a designated table on the floor.
Willow was shorter than most of the escorts, but she fit in well. Some of the debutantes were only sixteen, and most of their dates were younger than Willow. The guys joked and encouraged each other while waiting for the girls to be introduced and continued joking later at the tables. They seemed like a friendly group to Willow, but she blushed hearing their sometimes frank appraisals of the girls.
During the meal, a middle-aged woman stepped to a microphone in front of the high table and read lists of accomplishments and highlights of the young women’s lives to date. One girl was already accepted to pre-veterinary school. Another won a nationwide essay contest about resurrecting civil society. Cassandra had performed in the National Youth Orchestra as a featured cellist. Willow had no idea. She had also won a prize for representing Jamaica in a mock United Nations event. Cassandra planned to attend the University of California, San Diego, in the fall.
Willow proved to be one of the better dancers. She hadn’t realized she was expected to dance with all the girls. There seemed to be a system in place for exchanging partners after every dance.
One of the guys congratulated Willow during a break. She returned to her table to find half a dozen white roses on her seat. The other guys explained. If a girl wants another dance, she leaves a rose.
“How do I know which girls left roses?”
“They’ll let you know.” One of the guys with a couple of roses laughed.
“Dance doesn’t always mean ‘dance,’ if you know what I mean.” The guy next to Willow elbowed her in the ribs.
The young women looked like princesses. They even wore tiaras. Cassandra wore her hair in a tight pile at the top of her head. White baby’s breath, woven into her hair, echoed an elaborate white gown. Dancing gave Cassandra a healthy flush, and Willow realized the dates were mere accessories to the girls. It made sense for them to sit together at their own table because they were there to impress each other.
Willow approached Cassandra for the last dance. She bowed over a hand copying the gesture made by other escorts. Cassandra’s bright smile warmed Willow. They danced a Jenkka, which turned out to be unfamiliar to both. It required three quick steps and a hop followed by a turn. Willow stood behind Cassandra with her hands on Cassandra’s hips. They fumbled and bumped each other turning to follow the other dancers, but they laughed and enjoyed the shamble. Willow suspected the steps were invented to give young ladies an excuse to waggle their buns at young men.
When the lights dimmed and the orchestra started to pack up, Cassandra yanked Willow’s hand and pulled her to the side. The couple passed several girls who grinned knowingly. Cassandra ducked into a staff corridor leading away from the ballroom and threw her arms around Willow’s neck as soon as the door closed behind them. “Kiss me,” she demanded and pressed her lips against Willow’s.
Cassandra relaxed when Willow put her arms around her, and they broke the kiss. “That was my first,” Cassandra whispered.
“Mine, too,” Willow stammered while trying to catch her breath.
Cassandra led her to a storage area Willow hadn’t noticed before. Once inside, she dove onto a pile of red tablecloths laying on the floor. She landed face down but rolled over to look up at Willow. “Gregory told me about this place. He brought his date here after a cotillion.”
Cassandra’s arms opened in invitation, but Willow sat beside Cassandra instead of laying on her. Cassandra grabbed Willow’s hand and placed it against rough lace between her breasts. “Do you feel my heart beating?” Cassandra released Willow’s hand but pulled her close to trap it in position. Cassandra’s breasts pressed into Willow’s, and they kissed again.
Both girls panted when the kiss ended. Willow searched for an escape that could avoid insulting Cassandra. Willow’s hesitation lasted long enough for Cassandra to unfasten her bow tie and use its loose ends to pull Willow in for another kiss.
“We can’t do this,” Willow objected when Cassandra started unbuttoning the tuxedo shirt.
“I want to,” Cassandra moaned.
In some ways, Willow wanted it, too. The heat of the moment surprised and excited. She might have submitted to Cassandra’s exploration if she hadn’t feared discovery of her many lies.
Cassandra stroked Willow’s thigh through the dress pants, but Willow blocked the encroaching hand.
“What’s wrong?” Cassandra’s playful smile faded.
Willow looked away unable to face her friend.
“You love my brother, don’t you?”
“What?” Willow gulped.
“It’s OK. I had a feeling you might be gay.”
“I’m not gay,” Willow shouted, and Cassandra recoiled.
Willow jumped to her feet and almost lost the pants she hadn’t realized were unfastened. It irritated her to button and zip before she could storm away. She teetered on the edge of tears she didn’t dare reveal to Cassandra. For some reason, Willow’s pent up frustration and shaken gender identity overflowed. Her aroused body accused her angry mind of hypocrisy.
Willow ran, blinded by tears, through the maze to the break room. She flew out the side door into the freezing night. When she stumbled, cold hands guided her to her feet again.
“You’re the guy,” a familiar voice proclaimed.
Willow looked but couldn’t see the face shadowed by a hood. She moved to back away, but the man grabbed her in a painful headlock and twisted her arm behind her back. He marched her toward the woods bordering the club’s golf course. She struggled, but he stepped on her heels violently and buckled her knees to drag her further.
Willow screamed, “Help,” but it came out muffled and wheezing from the choke hold.
Shirley spotted the suspicious figure walking around Smalley’s Audi trying all the doors. She scanned back through the security recording to see him pull into the parking lot in a Firebird. He parked in the back as Cassandra Hamilton wobbled in high heels toward the front entrance.
Shirley kept an occasional eye on the stranger while he sat in his car doing who knows what for an hour or two. When the guy got out and started checking doors around the sides and back of the main building, Shirley called the police. She used the non-emergency number and reported a trespasser. The dispatcher promised to send a cruiser to check it out.
Shirley concentrated on closing the books for January. The drama surrounding Willow had distracted her so much that the books weren’t complete halfway into the next month. It was only chance that Shirley glimpsed a young man being accosted outside the staff entrance. When the stranger dragged his victim through a spot illuminated by a flood light, Shirley recognized Willow’s hair.
She dialed 911, but when she received the “all lines are currently busy” recording, she put 911 on hold and called Smalley. By the time Shirley explained the situation and hung up on Smalley, the antique phone system had disconnected 911. Shirley cursed and called the emergency line again.
Smalley roared into the parking lot in the gardener’s truck. Cassandra and Shirley met him by the front entrance. Cassandra’s makeup smeared as she wiped the mess of tears from her cheeks. Shirley pointed in the general direction of the woods.
After garbled talking and shouting over each other, Smalley jogged back to the truck and released Wicked. “Sit. Attend.” Smalley shouted, and the dog halted in its tracks to face its master.
“Do you have anything with Will’s scent on it?” he shouted back to the others.
Cassandra still carried Will’s bow tie, so she waved it to capture her brother’s attention.
“Perfect,” he exclaimed. He waved the bow tie under Wicked’s nose and then jogged to the edge of the woods with the dog trotting beside him. Shirley and Cassandra caught up to him as he commanded, “Search, Wicked.”
The dog bounded into the woods with Smalley close behind. Darkness made the woods seem almost impenetrable, and underbrush slapped and scratched the small man chasing a dog who ignored such inconveniences. A bellowing curse in the distance to Smalley’s right redirected the pursuit.
Wicked and Smalley burst into a ravine to find Kyle half dressed in a tuxedo three sizes too small. The assailant curled in a fetal position holding his groin.
Kyle ignored his former boss.
“Listen asshole. Where is Will?”
Wicked bounded further into the woods, so Smalley made a snap decision and followed.
“Will,” he shouted. “Where are you? Are you alright?”
Smalley tumbled through brush into a clearing at the same time Shirley and Cassandra arrived via a paved golf cart lane through the trees. Willow stood illuminated by Shirley’s flashlight and shivering in the cold. Willow was naked except for boy’s briefs ripped and hanging from her hips. She bled from scratches across her face, breasts, and stomach.
Smalley ran to her and clasped her shoulders. “Are you OK?” He shook her until she looked into his face. Then she clenched Smalley in a hug that left her rescuer bewildered with his arms stretched out to his sides.
Realization dawned, and Smalley returned Willow’s embrace. He held her and rocked her as she cried until police arrived.
Smalley gave Willow his jacket. Cassandra and Smalley guided her back to the parking lot while Shirley explained to the cops.
Kyle leapt out of the shadows brandishing a knife at Smalley. After a brief face off, Smalley shoved Cassandra and Willow away. Kyle stabbed, and Smalley dodged. Cassandra shouted for help.
Willow watched in awe and Kyle clenched the smaller man in some kind of military hand-to-hand combat maneuver. Smalley’s torso rotated above his hips, and a hand swept into the back of Kyle’s knee. Before Willow understood what was happening, Kyle lay on his back with the knife forgotten. Smalley pressed his heel on the bigger man’s neck.
Willow submerged herself in Cassandra’s large bathtub. Her mind replayed visions of Kyle being led away in handcuffs. Apparently, Kyle had hatched a vendetta against Smalley for firing him, and he had followed Cassandra, thinking she was Smalley.
Willow lifted her head out of the water to catch her breath and heard knocking at the door.
“Can we come in?” Cassandra asked.
Willow held her tongue, and the door cracked open an inch.
“Are you OK?” she asked. “I have some clothes here you can borrow.”
“Let me in,” Smalley called. “It’s only fair after the number of times you’ve seen me.”
“Let her have some privacy,” Cassandra objected.
“Just Smalley,” Willow croaked in a rough voice. She never uttered his nickname in his presence before that moment.
The man she loved squeezed past his sister and pulled the door closed. Willow reclined in the overlarge tub as the man examined her slender form. He sat on the edge to stir the water with a finger. “You make a lovely boy,” he teased.
“I’m sorry,” she sputtered. “I never meant any of it to happen.”
“Cassandra is more disappointed than I am,” he smiled. “I was starting to question my sexuality.”
Willow nodded, understanding, but found herself without words. Smalley leaned over her and whispered, “May I?” but kissed her softly before she could reply.
Willow panted after the kiss and marveled at the sensation of her second passionate kiss of the night, and her life. She believed she would die when Kyle had wrestled her to the ground and held the knife to her throat. He said he only wanted the tuxedo, but he hit her anyway. She must have been too closely associated with Smalley in his deranged mind.
Smalley stroked a raising purple welt around Willow’s eye. “Does it hurt?”
Willow stood dripping and flush from heat. The raised tub made her a few inches taller than the man she loved.
“Life is too short to waste any time,” she said with conviction.
Smalley lifted her slender naked body easily. He cradled her in his steel-hard arms and carried her through Cassandra’s room and down the hall to his own. Cassandra followed until Smalley turned into his room, and she quietly pulled the door closed to give them privacy.
Willow enjoyed another first that night and a second the following morning.