It's the first Thursday of the month - time for a free story! I hope you'll enjoy it . . .
Jill dragged herself up to her apartment. Just one more flight of steps. Thank God the week from hell was over. On Monday, her boss insisted on a hurried research about a range of products from a competitor, then the yearly product presentation threw her in a frenzy, and to top it all off, the annual New York Gift Show, sweltering hot, drained all her remaining energy. But now it was Friday and she was back in Seattle and almost home.
She resisted the urge to grab her right leg and hoist it up the next step. If only her contact lenses wouldn’t hurt so much. They had started to make trouble on her flight back from NYC to Seattle, and by now, their edges felt sharp enough to slice into her eyeballs.
With a sigh, she wiped the sweat from her face, stabbed the key into her door, turned it, and almost fell inside. Stuffy air welcomed her in. Scattering her handbag and her shoes on the way, she made a beeline for the bathroom and eased out the offending lenses.
That was better.
With a practiced movement, she pulled the magnifying mirror on her right closer, as far as it’s extendable arm would stretch, and stared into it, her nose almost touching the surface.
Bloodshot eyes in a pasty face stared back at her.
Maybe working fourteen hours a day wasn’t a good idea.
Jill yanked around the cold water faucet that insisted on getting stuck and washed her face, then stuck out her tongue and lapped up the cool water. New York in August felt like a steam bath. Thank God it was better in Seattle; in fact, it was a perfect night for the barbecue out with Mary and Sue.
Jill toweled off her face.
No. She wouldn’t go. She was too exhausted.
She would take a long, cool bath and try on that face mask Mary had given her. According to Mary, that face mask illuminated you from within and made you shine with beauty. Tonight was the right time for a transformation.
She rolled down her panty hose, kicked it into a corner and padded barefooted into the hall to retrieve her cell phone. While punching in Mary’s number, she went to the window and flung it wide open. Sweet summer air billowed in. Jill took a deep breath and pulled out the clasp that held back her hair, then shook her head to release the bunched up coil.
“Hi, you’ve reached Mary’s mailbox. Please leave a message.”
Jill let out a relieved sigh. Good. Leaving a message was quicker and the answering machine would not talk back.
“Hi Mary, this is Jill. I’m sorry but I’m too exhausted to join in the barbecue tonight. I promise I’ll . . . .”
“Oh.” Jill suppressed a sigh. “So you’re in?”
“I just came through the door.” Mary’s voice boomed through the receiver. “What’s this about not coming tonight?”
“I’m bushed. I really am.” Jill didn’t have to fake her weak voice.
“Oh, come on. As soon as you’re out, you’ll feel better.”
Jill gripped the phone between her shoulder and her ear and opened the zipper of her skirt. “Not tonight.” She hoped her voice sounded resolute and firm. “I would only be miserable, longing for my bed.” She tugged at her skirt.
“Is that your real reason? It’s not by any chance that hunky neighbor you have, is it?” Mary demanded.
Jill frowned, dropping the skirt onto the floor. “Who?”
“You know, the guy who moved in last week. Apartment F.”
Jill closed her eyes. “Mary, I still think you’ve seen an apparition when you were here the last time. There’s only Mrs. Penny on my left, and you couldn’t possibly take her for a hunky man. As to my neighbor in apartment F, whoever he may be, I’ve never even seen him.”
“Oh, well, I just wanted to ask.” Mary’s voice was cheerful. “He would be a reason to stay in.”
“Yeah.” Jill muttered, longing for her bath. “You know what, I’ll call you tomorrow or Sunday, and we can discuss my invisible neighbor for hours, but not tonight, okay?”
“Only if you manage to get me introduced to Mr. F.”
Jill tapped her foot. “I’ll shove you through his door the minute he opens it,” she promised and hung up.
Flinging the phone onto the sofa, she retreated into the bathroom. It was great fun to be with Mary, but sometimes her men chasing ways tended to be exhausting.
She banged the door shut.
The bathroom was going to be her sanctuary for the next hours. It wasn’t exactly a big sanctuary, with just enough room to turn around between the sink and the tub, but it would suffice. She would offer herself a true Wellness Evening. The kind luxury spas advertised.
First rule: Gentle movements.
Second rule: No disturbing thoughts.
In two hours, she would be as good as new. A slow smile spread across her face.
She started by brushing her teeth with leisure, sitting down on the toilet seat and wriggling her toes, glad to be rid of her shoes. Finally, her mouth full of foam, she yanked at the cold water faucet until it released the water with a protesting creak. One day soon, she would have to get a plumber.
Oh. That was against the rules. No disturbing thoughts.
Jill turned away from the troublesome faucet and unbuttoned her blouse, then took off her slip and bra.
Next, a cool, fragrant bath. She watched the water gush into the tub and dropped a capsule of almond oil into the whirl. Guaranteed to give her soft skin, or so the girl at the drugstore had promised.
Just before lowering herself into the tub, she sprinkled some bath salt with rose fragrance on top. The bathroom filled with a sweet smell.
Jill eased herself into the water.
AAAH. With a deep sigh, she leaned her head against the rim and closed her eyes.
An hour later, she had washed her hair and spread a ‘luxury conditioner’ cure onto it. The description said it would make her hair feel like silk. She hoped it was right. The cream felt like custard in her hands, accompanied by a faint vanilla smell. Jill double-checked the packaging to make sure she had not mistaken a dessert for a hair cure. But no, all was fine. Sticking strictly to the rules on the backside of the packaging, she covered the custard-hair-mix with aluminum foil to enhance the effect and fixed it all with a towel that she tried to turn into an elegant turban. She wanted it to look exactly like the turban of the poised yoga teacher she had seen on TV a week ago. But her turban had different ideas. It wobbled like a fat pudding on top of her head, sliding down whenever she dared to take a breath. After ten aggravating minutes, Jill gave up and fished out a large hair clasp that she jammed on top of the towering structure. It helped.
Now was the time to slab on Mary’s face mask. Then she would fix herself a cool drink, put up her feet and feel beauty soaking into every pore of her being.
Jill squeezed the tube—and froze. The stuff was green, light green, and it smelled like . . . She wrinkled her nose and sniffed . . . like earth, no, clay. She turned the tube around and read the description. Maybe she shouldn’t trust Mary with stuff that might damage her health.
“This entirely natural product will enhance your beauty,” she read aloud. “It will cleanse all pores, giving your skin all the care it needs.”
“Hmmm.” Jill scratched a spot beneath the turban. “That doesn’t sound too dangerous.” With a frown, she continued reading. “Spread on your face, leaving out the area around the eyes. Let dry for twenty minutes. Wash off with warm water.”
She eyed the green paste once more, then shrugged. “Oh, what the hell.” She finished the tube, lavishly spreading the cream on her cheeks and her forehead, down the temples, around her mouth, covering her chin.
By the time she had finished, the vapor in the bathroom had vanished. Bending down to throw away the empty tube, she happened to glance at the magnifying mirror.
“Oh, my God!”
Her eyes looked redder than ever, surrounded by pale green paste. The turban wobbled on top, giving the monster in the mirror a slightly ridiculous touch.
“My beauty will come out later, I guess,” Jill murmured, pulled her bathrobe closer and glided into the living room, holding her head erect to avoid the structure from toppling over.
Now part two of the Wellness Program.
Jill turned on her CD player. Holly Cole. A clear, strong voice. Just like her beauty, emerging soon. Hopefully.
Jill ventured out onto the balcony. The air caressed her bare legs, warm and soft, tempting her to stay outside. But no, it would not do. The new neighbor might spot her and decide to move out again. Mary would never forgive her.
Jill lit several tea-lights and distributed them around the room, then went into the kitchen and fixed herself a cool drink. Orange juice. Campari. Ice.
It was summer. With a contented sigh, she lowered herself onto the sofa and put up her feet.
Why couldn’t life always be like that?
She closed her eyes.
A horn rang out across the street. Jill shrank together and shot up. The candles had long gone out. Stars shone through the open balcony door, against a backdrop of pitch black night.
She had no idea where she was. Then recollection struck.
“Oh, my God.” Jill grabbed her turban with one hand and ran to the bathroom, peering into the magnifying mirror. Her face mask was stone dry, cracked in several places.
She looked like a sick mummy.
“Please, God, please, let it have no adverse effects if used too long,” she prayed and jerked at the faucet. “Please, let my hair not be orange and my skin not be blue, and let . . . damn!” The faucet was stuck for good.
Jill grabbed it with all her strength and tried again.
She heard a crack. Something gave way, and water gushed out like a jet, filling the sink rapidly.
Jill lifted her hand and stared at it, still holding the faucet. “It’s come off,” she whispered. “The whole damn thing has just come off!”
She tried to jam it back, but it only made crunching noises and wobbled around, good for nothing.
“I need a . . .,” in her panic, she couldn’t think of the word. “A . . . a tool . . . a what’s it!” Whatever it was, she didn’t have it.
The water rose steadily, nearing the edge of the sink.
Jill ran out of the bathroom, out of her apartment, into the corridor.
Mrs. Penny? She couldn’t help.
The new neighbor!
Jill ran to the door marked with an F and rang the bell, never taking off her finger. When nothing moved, she banged her fist on the door. “Open up, please!” she shouted. “It’s an emergency!”
The door was wrenched open.
“What on earth . . .?” The man in front of her wasn’t much taller than she was, so she could see his face even without her glasses. He stared at her, his eyes widening, his mouth going slack.
Jill lifted her hand, still clutching the faucet.
He jumped back a step, as if to close the door.
“No, wait!” Jill shouted and shoved the faucet under his nose. “The faucet broke. I need a . . . a tool . . . a . . you know? The water is running, I can’t stop it! I’m from apartment E.”
He didn’t move, just stared at her.
“Damn it, I’m your neighbor!” Jill got desperate. Why didn’t he react? “Do you have a . . . a toolbox?”
His eyes fell on the faucet. And finally, just as Jill was about to push him aside and run into his apartment to look for a toolbox herself, he nodded. “A wrench.”
Jill hopped up and down. “Yes. YES! You got one?”
He nodded again, turned on his heels, and disappeared through an open door into his kitchen. Jill dithered on his threshold. What the hell did he do? Carve one?
When he shot out of his kitchen, she pivoted around and ran back to her apartment, leading the way. At the door to her bathroom, she slammed to a stop.
Small waves rippled towards them across the tiles. He pushed past her, splashing through the water. Her bra floated up, welcoming him in.
Her neighbor bent over the gushing faucet and started to work on it. Jill could see nothing but his back. The water gurgled, something metallic clanked. “You manage?” She tried to catch a glimpse by squeezing herself to the side. Her nose almost touched his back.
All at once, she recoiled.
He didn’t wear a t-shirt. Gulping, she looked down. Thank God, at least he wasn’t completely naked. There was a pair of perfectly respectable shorts where they should be. But his feet were bare, standing like islands in a sea. Jill blinked. Shaking herself, she grabbed as many towels as she could, throwing them onto the floor.
“I need my tongs,” he suddenly said. “Can you go to the kitchen and get my tool kit?”
“Yeah.” Jill swirled around, ran to his kitchen and found a toolbox sitting on his kitchen table. Thank God he’d only just moved in and had everything handy. She grabbed it and chased back, shoving it close to him. “Here.”
“Thanks.” He stared down at it, his blond hair falling into his face. “Can you get those tongs there, the ones with the red handle?”
“Now come here.”
She couldn’t see how she could come any closer, but he already continued, “I’ve managed to turn it a bit, but it’s stuck now. If you hold the wrench in place, I’ll try to manage the last bit with the tongs.” He moved to the side to make room for her.
Jill crouched down beneath him and grabbed the wrench.
He bent over her, settled the tongs in the right position and slowly turned the remains of the faucet to close the tab.
Jill could smell his aftershave and felt his arms moving above her. It was a curiously nice feeling.
The jet of water slowed, then sputtered and died.
She heard the satisfaction in his voice. Jill heaved a deep sigh. “Thank you.” She wriggled out of her position and turned around to face him. “Thank you so much,” she repeated. “You’ve saved me.”
He stared at her, his tongs forgotten in his hand.
Mary was right. Her neighbor was an attractive guy. With dark green eyes and a square chin that gave him a determined look.
Jill tried a smile. Something cracked on her cheeks. She frowned. It cracked some more, this time on her forehead. She put up her hand and touched her face. Tiny flakes, light green, fell off and settled on the wet floor, sprinkling it like parsley. Jill’s eyes followed them. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. She’d completely forgotten her face mask. With troubled eyes, she lifted her head to stare at her dumb-founded neighbor.
At this moment, her turban fell off, revealing the custard cream on her hair, with a topping of crumpled aluminum foil. The air felt cold on her exposed ears.
A corner of his mouth quivered.
Jill saw it and could feel herself blushing. At least he won’t see me going red, she thought, after all, my face is completely covered with green paste. Then she realized she was mistaken. Her ears were bare. An image of herself flashed through her mind: Yellow paste on top, garnished with aluminum foil, cracked green face, glowing ears, red-rimmed eyes. She was a monster.
He didn’t seem to be able to tear his gaze away.
“I . . . aah . . . em . . .,” Jill swallowed. “I had a Wellness Evening.”
Jill made a furtive move with her hands. “You know. Pamper yourself. Get beautiful.”
He seemed dazed.
“Only I . . . em . . . fell asleep. So it’s not quite finished yet.”
He had a very attractive mouth. She was close enough to see it. Clear lines. Not too thin. Now even the second corner started to twitch, but he finally found his voice.
“What’s not quite finished?” he asked.
“The . . . “ Jill took a deep breath. “The beauty process.” A large flake of green paste shook itself loose from her face and floated to the ground without a sound.
“I see.” His answer was grave, but his eyes were alight with laughter.
And all at once, Jill couldn’t help herself. She burst out laughing. Her neighbor joined in, doubling up until he had to gasp for breath. Finally, Jill sagged against the wall and looked for something to wipe away her tears. He passed her the last clean towel.
“Thanks.” She grabbed it, then stared in doubt at the fluffy white material.
“You can use my bathroom.” He grinned. “I guess you know the way.”
Jill grinned back. “I do.”
Half an hour later, she started to feel like a human being again. A cautious peek into his mirror assured her that her hair still had its light brown color, though she wasn’t sure about her face. It certainly felt clean. Scrubbed, rather. Flaming red, to be exact. She hoped it would tone down with time. She would have something to say to Mary.
Toweling her hair, she ventured out. It was easy to find her way, as his apartment was built like hers. Following a faint clicking sound, she wandered into his living room.
Her neighbor hunched over a computer, typing away as if he wanted to set the keyboard on fire. He had pulled on a white shirt, but his feet were still bare.
“You work in the middle of the night?” she asked.
He nodded. “I’m a night-owl.” He threw her a lopsided grin. “And tonight, inspiration struck.”
She stopped toweling her hair and lifted her eyebrows. There was something in his grin that filled her with foreboding. “Nothing to do with me, I hope?” she asked.
His grin deepened. “Uh. Kind of.”
She came closer.
He swiveled around on his chair and got up. “I just couldn’t resist.”
Jill narrowed her eyes. “Couldn’t resist what?”
“Well, I write children’s books.”
She got there with lightning speed. “And you’ve just had the perfect idea for a
variation on ‘The Beauty And The Beast’?”
“Beast E,” he corrected her with a smile.
“No. Beast E.” He was so close she could see the tiny wrinkles around his laughing green eyes. “You’re in apartment E, aren’t you?”
“Oh.” Jill was speechless.
“But I must say, you’ve improved greatly with the washing.”
Jill opened her mouth and closed it again.
He held out his hand. “By the way. My name’s Joe.”
She took it. His fingers closed around hers, warm and strong. “Hi, Beauty Joe. I’m Jill.”
He pulled a face. “Ouch. I guess I had that coming.”
It was Jill’s turn to laugh. “Yep. You won’t hear the last of it for a long time.” Her hair started dripping again, leaving droplets on his linoleum floor.
He looked at her, considering. “I know what I’ll do,” he finally said, “to make amends.”
Jill suppressed a smile and continued to towel her hair to stop it from dripping. “Well?”
“I’ll mop up your bathroom floor.”
By the time they had wrung out all the towels and finished cleaning the floor, she felt as if she had known him for years.
“Want a drink?” She hung the last towel on the rim of the tub and pushed back her heavy glasses that kept sliding down her nose.
“Love to.” He emptied out the bucket. “All that water has made me thirsty.”
Jill went to the kitchen to see what she could unearth. “Red wine okay?” she called back through the open door.
“Sounds great.” She heard him crossing the living room. “Can’t we take our drinks to the balcony?” he called.
“Sure,” Jill dropped the bottle opener back onto the kitchen table. “But we’ll get a kink in our necks because there’s just enough room to put the chairs side by side and hang our feet across the balustrade.”
There was a chuckle in his voice. “We’ll switch chairs when that happens.”
They switched chairs five times until the sunrise tinted the Space Needle an improbable rose, making it look as if it was going to fly off any minute. It was so easy to talk him him, so easy to tell him about all the dreams and dramas in her life.
When she finally brought him to the door, he said, “Good night, Beast E.”
“Good night, Beauty Joe.”
Jill only woke when the sun was already high in the sky. Feeling curiously light and happy, she dressed with care and did her hair and face with more attention than usual. Thank God nothing much remained of her hard-core beauty treatment.
As she pushed the pile of towels into the washing machine, she wondered how soon she could call on him without appearing too forward.
When she opened her door half an hour later, she found a parcel on her doormat. Puzzled, she picked it up. Something long, wrapped in light green gift paper. She undid the ribbon that held it together and found a brand new wrench. Underneath it, there was a note.
“Hope you slept well. Here’s something for you, in case I’m not at home when the next emergency arises. Have coffee ready, if you should feel like it.”