She sat up in the hotel bed, the hotel sheet pooled in her lap, her bare breasts on display as she smoked her cigarette, every now and then reaching to tap her ashes into the hotel ash tray on the hotel bedside table.
She stared blankly at the hotel sconce on the hotel wall, her thoughts so very far away from the hotel room she shared with a man she hardly knew.
She could hear him now, showering brutishly. Her lips pursed in disgust as he grunted yet again, probably harshly rubbing the soap on a tender spot of his body. She wished he would be silent and let her hear only the sounds of the water hitting his body on its way to the drain. Then she could easily imagine that he was anyone, anyone at all, but as it stood, every time she tried, he would let loose another grunt or groan and ruin her daydream.
She rested her chin on her shoulder as she fiercely stubbed out her cigarette on top of all the other butts in the ashtray. She smiled softly as she imagined his body beneath the glowing ember, reddening and then blackening at its touch. It struck her what she was thinking about, and she dropped the butt, wiping her fingers on the hotel sheet. She pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them to her body, and a tear slipped softly down her cheek.
The knob squealed a protest as he turned the water off in the bathroom.
She jerked her head upright and scrubbed frantically at her face to dry the single tear, then closed her eyes and took two deep breaths to calm her heart rate. She heard him step out of the hotel bathtub and caught herself wishing that he would fall and strike his head against the porcelain and bleed out, there on the floor, and she could claim innocence until the red pool crept out from under the bathroom door. She laughed, and clapped a hand against her mouth to hold back the rest of it.
He walked out of the hotel bathroom, beaming when he saw her, his body still dripping hotel water on the hotel carpet, a hotel towel tossed artlessly over his right shoulder. She didn’t meet his eyes, her gaze hovering instead on his unshaven upper lip.
“How about we order in some dinner?” he asked, and his voice grated on her ears.
She suppressed a cringe, and smiled brightly, reaching for her phone. “Sure, what’d you have in mind?”
He chuckled. “You.”
He threw the towel to the floor and leaped onto the bed, nearly crushing her left foot. His hands reached for her, and it took every bit of inner strength she had to let him fondle her nakedness.
She praised whatever gods there may be when her stomach grumbled, loudly, distracting him from his struggle with the sheet that covered her body.
“How about later?” she offered. “I’m starving.”
He raised an eyebrow, then acquiesced. “Later, then. I’m pretty hungry myself. Let’s get room service; they’d be the fastest.” He stood and pulled a pair of jeans from the duffel bag on the dresser before jamming his feet into the legs, one at a time.
He winked at her, and her stomach tied itself in another knot of disgust.
A chill ran down her spine as she pulled up to the huge wrought iron gate. She rolled down her window to hit the button on the call box, but while she was reaching toward it, the gate opened inward without a sound. She slowly pulled her arm back in her car and drove forward.
The driveway was so long that she hadn’t caught her first glimpse of the house yet, but judging by the neighborhood, this was shaping up to be her fanciest gig ever. The Craigslist ad she’d answered to get it was enough to guarantee that it was certainly the strangest.
One person needed for dinner party prep. No catering or cooking required. 12 guest table. $2000 flat rate compensation. Only serious inquiries, please.
She gripped the steering wheel a little tighter and let her foot off the gas as she rounded the last curve and the house came into view.
It really almost looked like a fantastical medieval castle, turrets and crenellations and all, only lacking a moat, but the small black BMW convertible parked in front of the entrance ruined the authenticity. Still, it remained a glorious sight.
The engine knocked, nearly stalling, and she shook herself back to the present and stomped the clutch. She was a hair too late, so she restarted the car and cruised up to park behind the BMW.
She pushed the button to pop the trunk and snagged her messenger bag from the passenger seat beside her. Without grabbing anything from the trunk, she headed for the front door to see if she would ever need any of the supplies she always carried with her as a professional party planner.
She crossed her fingers that the door would open as mysteriously as the gate had before she was presented with the dilemma of knocking or ringing, and she was not disappointed. The massive wooden door swung inward to reveal a small, clean-shaven man in a navy suit and tie.
“I apologize for not meeting you outside, Ms Clark. You will not be needing any of your own supplies and may either latch your trunk or disregard it. I assure you that your equipment is quite safe here.”
He gazed softly, expectantly at her until she made up her mind to close her trunk. She didn’t know whether or not the trunk light would drain her battery, and as her mother always said, why take chances, Suzie Q?
She pushed the trunk closed and trotted swiftly back to the door, where the mystery man had remained, waiting for her.
“This way, Ms Clark,” the man intoned, turning on his heel to lead the way.
“As it is now two o’clock precisely, you will have four hours to completely set up for tonight’s festivities,” the man briefed her as they walked the empty hallways.
“You have complete creative freedom in this endeavor. Our employer’s only request is that the decor remain tasteful. Toward this end our employer has acquired any and all supplies you may possibly need in the two pantries adjoining the dining hall. This way.”
They turned left and entered a gigantic dining room. The crystal chandelier hung low over the dark walnut table, and five chairs were evenly spaced along either long side of the table, with the remaining two neatly placed at the shorter ends. Ms Clark gasped at the opulence, overwhelming even in its simplicity.She couldn’t wait to see what supplies lay in wait for her to make this space even more inviting.
She followed the still unnamed man around the table and into a room beyond. Shelves on all four walls were packed chock full of tablecloths, vases, and napkins. The next room contained nothing but tableware: flatware, dinnerware, and glassware of all shapes, sizes, and colors.
She reached to run her fingers over some of the most impressive, but was startled by the man clearing his throat. He extended a check to her, and she took it, quickly verifying that it was indeed for $2000 and made out to her. She didn’t recognize the signature.
“My duties are fulfilled here, Ms Clark. I trust you will not let our employer down. Have a good evening.” And with a slight bow, he turned and left as silently as ever.
She shrugged and began inventorying the precious goodies that surrounded her. Food or no food, this was going to be the most beautiful party she’d ever set up.
She still wondered about the host…and the guests. Maybe it was a cult meeting and they were forbidden to eat? She laughed the silly notion off, but the chill returned to her spine as another idea hit her.
Maybe it was a dinner party for ghosts.
Remember the girl who was left behind? Let’s find out what she’s been up to lately.
It had been a long, dusty day traipsing along the side of this highway in the middle of nowhere. Her whistle had long since petered out. Perhaps it was time to take an inventory of her situation, she thought.
Yes. That was probably best.
A patch of shorter grass was just up ahead, and when she reached it, she plopped down on her behind to go through her pockets. She smoothed the grass even smoother and began laying out her life.
Her right front pocket was empty.
The first thing she pulled from her left front pocket was a particularly round rock that she had just picked up, maybe five minutes earlier. She inspected it anew, twisting and turning it to check for any more appealing attributes that she may or may not have noticed the first time she picked it up. It appeared to be the same. She placed the rock on the smooth spot that she’d made.
Next up was a Dentyne gum wrapper, sans Dentyne. Normally, she recalled, she jammed the gum wrappers into the crevice of the back seat of her (former) parents’ car, but for some reason, she had kept this one. She shook her head, unable to recall any sentimental value for this particular wrapper. Next to the rock it went, just in case the reason she’d kept it came back to her.
Underneath the gum wrapper, she discovered seventy-eight cents in various coin denominations. She stacked them in order of increasing diameter, and checked her back pockets.
Her left pocket was as empty as the right front, not even occupied by a stray chunk of denim lint, but her right pocket was slightly more lucrative. She smiled as she read over the grocery list that she had swiped from her (former) mother three days earlier. The woman had searched and searched for that list, and never suspected her darling little girl had possession of it.
She sighed at the memory, knowing that at the moment, she was no one’s darling little girl. It was time for that to change. She gathered her small pile of belongings up and carefully replaced them in her pockets before standing up and stretching.
She arched her back and decided that it was time to come to terms with her new situation.
“New parents, here I come! Get ready for your darling little Frannie to come home,” she called to the vast prairie stretching before her.
And she set off walking again, whistling with renewed vigor.