Given that I was temporarily unemployed, for the next few weeks I assumed the role of 1. returner of Mills’ innumerable boxes of mail order crap; and 2. daily walker of Willie. Fortunately, I could tackle both tasks at once on days like today, when my return pile consisted of two blouses and a pair of TOMS flats. Full-on Zappos days were a little bit tougher, but those were rare, since Mills was in blue Crocs roughly 97% of the time anyway.
The straightest walking path to the UPS Store was through campus, which on a late weekday morning like this made me feel like Justin Bieber at the mall, since every female student along the way stopped to pet, gush and croon over Willie. Even though it was cold, blustery, and there was even a little sprinkling of chilly rain coming down from time to time, everyone had a few seconds to get some puppy love. And Willie, for his part, was eating it up like kibble.
If all that adoration weren’t enough, the west side of campus, where we were heading, was a woodland reserve, and though no puppy-petters were to be found there, the area was chock-full of trees and squirrels and oh so many exciting things to smell! I could only laugh, standing there with a plastic bag over my ankle boot as a high-tech protector from the moist ground, watching my new friend’s unabashed display of glee. Willie was beside himself completely, having what almost looked to be an out-of-body experience digging into a gopher hole. If only it were that simple for us all.
But suddenly his paws stopped in mid-dig. His tail went completely rigid, his head shot up, and the hair on my arms stood on end to see the way his hackles shot out to attention instantaneously. A low, threatening growl rose up from his chest as he lowered his head in warning, a complete 180 from the playful pup he’d been just a second ago. Then he was motionless; the sound he made came out of an unmoving place, which frightened me in its oddness, as though some unseen force was keeping him from following his natural instinct to lurch out and protect me.
It was cold, and standing still as I was, I felt my fingers and nose begin to grow numb. We were alone in this dense patch of woods; there were no crunching footsteps or voices or any signs of life around us. The only sounds were Willie’s growl and the wind blowing a few remaining late fall leaves across the November ground. It all felt still, dead.
The wind whipped suddenly, a blustery blow that set my hair and coat flying behind me. Then suddenly the feeling was there—cold and moisture fused in a perfect O on the side of my neck. My body froze in place of its own volition; I wanted to move, scream—anything—but I was mired to the spot in which I stood, with flesh . . . yes, it was flesh . . . pressed against me. I could only hear my breath now, and the beating of my heart. The flesh . . . no, the lips . . . began to move, expanding, then shrinking, then expanding again. I felt a tongue follow those lips as they drew back around my skin . . . as the lips kissed me . . . growing warmer as they lapped with controlled abandon. For a brief second the feel of them was gone, and I felt the wind set a chill over the wet skin they left behind. Then they were back, warming me, landing differently this time, and as they once again began their sensual dance, a hardness was there as well. In the wake of soft and warm there was now hard and sharp, shocking my skin as it scraped along. Then there was more hardness, then lips and tongue and sharpness together, all bearing down harder and harder...
* * *
"Miss, it’s your turn."
I must have looked like a total fool to the other people in line at UPS, what with the completely dumbfounded gape on my face. The redhead standing directly across from me surely thought so. One of those stylish types with the brick house bod, the perfect hair and the Lancôme face, she and her two little almost-bald, bug-eyed little Chihuahuas were all staring at me with thinly veiled loathing.
The woman behind the desk called to me again. Had I walked here? I had absolutely no memory of it. I advanced my befuddled behind to the counter, trying with all of my might to gather together any threads of the past hour I could muster, but all to no avail. What the hell had happened to me?
"Oh sorry, yes, I have three items to return, please." I had left the apartment, I had tripped over one of the stairs, but caught myself on the railing. A young woman in a Duke sweatshirt asked if she could babysit my dog. Willie barked at a squirrel and the sound echoed across the woods. And then ... I was here. What?
"Do you have the return receipts?"
Come on, Elma, come on back to Earth. "Sure--here." The printouts shook in my hands as I handed them over. My neck was burning in one small place, near where they always feel for a pulse in those TV medical dramas. I felt around with my shaking fingers, but there was nothing--no rash, no bumps, no scratches. Just smooth, clammy skin above a racing pulse that even I could find. I was starting to feel faint. Breathe, Elma. Focus.
"No charge for ground, then, ma’am. Have you seen the Master?"
"Ground OK, or do you want to send it faster?"
"Um...ground. Ground is fine." My head was beginning to thump painfully in time with my heartbeat.
"Cool. They’ll be watching you."
"What?" I was sweating, and couldn’t catch my breath.
"Ma’am, you dropped your shoe. Are you OK?"
Looking down, I saw that one of Mills’ red canvas flats had fallen out of the box and onto the floor. I picked it up, shaking even more as I did so, stuffed it indelicately back into the box, dumped everything onto the counter, grabbed the leash, and rushed out of the store.