It looked, from the outside, kind of like a prohibition nightclub. The solid door, the lack of windows. You expected to need a password.
I sort of had one; the trial membership card crumpled in my fist, the cardboard gone soft from being scrunched up and flattened out so many times. I have big hands. A little card can get lost, look like an old receipt, like trash. A lot. But this one had a habit of staring back at me from the banana peels, looking accusing. What can I say? I worried for the Brave Little Toaster too; I named my skull. So then I’d fish it out, and we’d do it all over again. I couldn’t read the expiry date any more; the ink had faded and rubbed off as my hand got clammy, time and time again. I’d memorized it, though. It was good through Monday-- three days left out of the two months they’d offered me for warding them against a low-ranking Raith.
I stepped inside, those wards I’d put up in December still strong, tingling and welcoming me through, and there was a cozy little foyer and waiting room, the kind of place they seat you when the waitress hasn’t wiped down your table yet, except there wasn’t a restaurant behind it, just a wood door with what I recognized as noise-baffle padding, and a man behind a desk reading a paperback.
The … bouncer? Maitre’d? looked up and smiled at me-- a bright expression. He was a skinny guy, but spared my angular features by way of a round face and slight upturned nose, and with his glasses and big sweater, he looked about as threatening as a kindergarten teacher. “Can I help you?”
“I’m here for--” words failed. “The event tonight.”
His expression fell. “Sir, I’m so sorry-- you have to be a member, or the guest of a member. If you want, we have an open house the first of every month--”
“No,” My hand clenched around the strap of my duffelbag. “I have a card. You gave me a card,” I said, a little desperately, because as much as the idea of this freaked me out, the idea that I was going to be turned away at the door? Suddenly so much more horrifying. I thrust the crumpled cardboard at him, and his face cleared up.
“Great! Great. I hate kicking people out.” He spread out the card on the desk and looked carefully at it. “Um, the date--”
“Monday,” I said tightly. “Two months from the seventeenth of December. I’m the guy the Paranet called in. I put up the new security system.”
He just nodded and reached for a button. “There’s a changing room, first door on your left, if you’ve brought anything. Do you know anyone? Do you want me to get Mistress Lane to show you--”
“I’m fine,” I said, chopping off the syllables like they’d gag me if I let them get any longer
“...Sir. Please.” He looked at me, scanning my face. I avoided his eyes, and that scared him a little, I could tell. “Are you sure you’re okay for this? We can extend the membership if you aren’t ready. If you’d like to come back with somebody you feel safe with.”
“No,” I said instinctively, pulling back a little, and he must have seen the horror on my face, because he let out a breath, looked at me worriedly for another few seconds, and then buzzed me in. The lamp on his desk flickered a few times, and I was half scared I’d short whatever electronics ran the locks, that I’d set off the alarms or blow all the lights and end everything right there, but the door opened and he smiled reassuringly at me.
I walked stiff-legged inside. There was a hallway on the other side of the door; warmly lit, though the incandescent bulbs flickered as I passed. There was a warm gray carpet on the floor. The walls were wood paneled. So far, not what I was expecting. The changing room was where he said it was; I dropped my duffel and kicked out of my boots awkwardly, struggling out of my jeans before I could think better of it. I had a faded t-shirt in the bag, a pair of powder-blue fleece sweatpants I’d picked up on clearance. Then the blanket, and the book. I shoved my street clothes in the bag, stuffed my duster on top of them and stepped out into the hall in my socks.
There were six doors down the hall, all but the ones labeled (with cute wood-cut hangers) ‘Innies’ and ‘Outies’ securely shut and muffled like the front door had been. I was beginning to wish I’d sucked it up and asked for the guided tour. I’d flipped through the calendar they’d sent me, in a discrete folding cardboard box, with my eyes half closed and my ears pounding hard enough I didn’t think I’d remember a thing, but using it to navigate would be like looking at pictures of the Forums and Coliseum and thinking I’d be able to find my way around Rome.
I opened the nearest door and froze like a deer in headlights.
There you go, I told myself. You knew where you were going. I forced myself to step inside, past the empty sling and the big ‘X’ frame bolted to the wall. There was carpet here, too, but not as deep as the hall outside. Easier to clean, I was guessing.
It was cozy and comfortable looking, decorated in reds and golds, lots of rich warm wood and fabric hanging on the walls, and people were being hurt in here. The quiet smack of flesh on flesh, other things on flesh. The creak of chains.
Nobody looked up.
My mouth wouldn’t make the words.
A cold androgynous figure-- between the corset and chastity belt and leather mask I couldn’t tell-- noticed me and stepped over. He-- she-- they-- reached up and unzipped the mouth hole. “Honey?” she (she.) said, very gently. “Are you lost?”
Adrenaline stung in my eyes. I nodded.
“Are you here for storytime?”
“That’s in the lounge. Do you know where the lounge is, honey?”
I shook my head, too fast, too much.
“It’s the door at the very end of the hall.” She was as tall as me in her fetish heels-- they kept her on her toes, like a ballet dancer. She moved very slowly but very steadily in them. The mask covered her whole head, like a bag, and I couldn’t see her eyes, just some dark mesh where they were, but she turned her face toward me, somehow making the black leather look kind. “Do you want me to show you?”
Numbly, I nodded. She reached out for my hand-- her vinyl glove pinned all of her fingers together, only her thumb separate, by a mitten. I took hers gingerly, and she led me slowly, with short, careful steps, out into the hall, away from the dungeon.
I clutched my blanket and book closer to my chest as I followed her, clinging to her hand until she took it away to open the door. The room inside was cool colors. Greens. Lots of couches, a pile of large cushions in a corner, a fireplace roaring. There was a gathering on the floor, men and women in pajamas curled up in sleeping bags or blankets around a large figure, reading quietly, something with ups and downs and rhymes. Seuss.
“Papa Goose?” she said quietly. “This little guy got lost. He’s here for storytime.”
The man she’d spoken to looked up and nodded, once.
She patted my shoulder and tousled my hair, saying: “Here you go, honey. Safe and sound.” And then she left me, standing there horrified.
I’d freaked out at the guy at the door for suggesting I bring someone else because I didn’t want anyone to know about this. Ever. Nobody I knew. Nobody who’d ever see me again.
And here was Mac Freaking McAnally looking up at me, in my crappy sweatpants that were the closest I could get to pajamas, at the book in my hands. And I felt like he knew. Like he could just look at me and know how messed up I was. Like just seeing Make Way For Ducklings in my grip meant that he could pull off some kind of Sherlock Holmes deduction and know that it was just one book out of two full boxes, that I hid them under my bed and took them out when I’d had a day so crappy that nothing else helped, that I was so screwed up I couldn’t stash Playboys under there like everyone else, no, I needed Mole Music and Horton Hatches The Egg.
That I knew Go Dog Go by heart and I still trolled goodwill for little golden books like I could assemble the gentle words and soothing pictures into a childhood that wasn’t full of loss and fear and pain, that I was messed up enough about it that I had to go a fetish dungeon for ‘kid’s story night’ because sometimes reading Just Grandma And Me to myself wasn’t enough anymore.
Mac smiled at me, slow and warm, and patted the couch next to him. I tried to go backwards, to get out before I said anything, did anything to humiliate myself even further, but instead I stumbled over and took a seat, letting him pull me against him and tuck my blanket around me.
He waited till I was relaxed, and the chorus of sleepy ‘hi’s and ‘what’s that book’s and ‘I’m Davey!’ ‘I’m Billy!’ I’m Dina!’ had subsided, and then he put an arm around me, laying the book on his lap.
“Bump, Bump, Bump,” he read. “Did you ever ride a whump? We have a whump with just one hump.” He paused to show us all the drawing of the seven-humped whump. I tucked closer against him, feeling guilty that I had the seat of honor and I could see all the pictures, but no one else seemed to mind, except maybe Billy who kept leaning forward to see, blocking Dina and the woman--girl-- wrapped in a pink blanket who’d volunteered ‘I’m Penny’ in a whisper until Mac told him by way of a gentle look to sit still, that everyone would get a chance to see.
Davey asked for ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ next, and I didn’t realize that the fear and shame and adrenaline had been rooted so deep until they were gone and I was slumped against Mac, tired and hollowed out and left small, sliding down to rest my head on his lap.
“Mac?” I whispered, on the break between books, while Billy made himself a bed out of the big cushions and Penny braided another girl’s-- Sally’s-- hair, and realized that wasn’t right. “Mister Mac?”
He gave me a listening look. I’d seen it a lot, but never like this, never this soft and friendly. Some people talk differently around kids. He faced differently around kids.
“Why are you talking so much?”
He winked at me, and then gave me a little shush, rubbing my shoulder. When he reached for my book, I shyly let him have it. But I kept an eye on him, to make sure he didn’t hurt it.
He took a drink from a bottle, closing his eyes and waiting for a second before he swallowed. Then he put the bottle back and spread my book across his lap, and it must have been some kind of cue because everyone went quiet, and Davey burrowed down in his sleeping bag, and I suddenly couldn’t look away. “Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were looking for a place to live. But every time Mr. Mallard saw what looked like a nice place, Mrs. Mallard said it was no good...”
My eyes started to sting. Look. I was tired. And it’s my favorite book. And nobody had ever read it to me--never any voice but my own, quietly, like somehow my next door neighbors would hear across the dock, or Bob down in the subbasement, when I’d had a subbasement. Mac’s voice was deep and playful and he did all the ‘very serious’ and ‘surprised’ parts just right and he was reading me a story. And it had been a shitty day up till this point, all right?
Mac let me cry, rubbing my shoulder and dabbing my face with the corner of my blanket. The soft pressure of his hand kept me from panicking somehow-- kept me from being freaked out that I was sobbing and sniffling quietly in front of a roomful of people. After a while I ran out of tears, and-- after Mac produced a tissue from a pack in his shirt pocket to blow my nose-- and one for Sally, who was a contagious crier-- I didn’t have much left in me.
Mac finished up Make Way for Ducklings and stood up quietly, arranging some of the leftover cushions for me and tucking me in on the little makeshift bed. He picked up a sign that said ‘ssh-- naptime’ and went to hang it outside the door, dimming the lounge lights on his way back.
Davey asked for one more book but I was asleep before we even got to the Room of Very Heavy Things.