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SX DOLLS



A Novel

Camille Hugh


(Gemini Squared Publishing)




Book Formatting by Derek Murphy @Creativindie.


SX DOLLS

Copyright © 2018 by Camille Hugh.


All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations em- bodied in critical articles or reviews.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organiza- tions, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


For information contact :

http://www.facebook.com/sxdolls


Book and Cover design by Grzegorz

ISBN: 9780463602188




First Edition: September 2018


10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


CONTENTS

SX DOLLS

CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

About the Author

Acknowledgments






CHAPTER ONE





Stacy Harris leaned her weight on the counter top while staring out her storefront’s glass windowpanes at the bright and sunny summer day. Her eyes followed the horde of jubilant tourists and local office workers on lunch. The latter were in rare good form as they looked forward to yet another summer Friday or after work happy hour to blow their freshly cut paychecks. Everyone’s happiness and freedom seemed exaggerated and on full display for Stacy to observe, mainly because she had nothing else to do.

There were tons of good food options in the vicinity, but most of the passersby carried cute and tidy orange boxes, and pressed fistfuls of food to their lips as they came in and out of Stacy’s view. It was a common sight, one that Stacy tried her best to not resent or begrudge, but if she was honest it was a slap in the face more than the fact that she was confined behind a counter all day.

She didn’t want to block her own blessings, but she found it hard to not feel a bit of envy with the bleak situation she currently faced—a barren café with no patrons, activity, or prospects. As she was trying not to feel sorry for herself, one of the young couples passing by, definitely tourists judging by their I LOVE NY shirts, suddenly approached the window and peered into the empty store. Stacy quickly eased her body off the counter, straightened her spine and gave an earnest, wide toothed smile to will them in.

“Come in, come in.” She whispered desperately through her teeth without moving her lips. Her cheeks hurt from how hard she was cheesing, but she hoped her inviting smile would be just the assurance they needed to be the brave pioneers who would venture inside, buy something, and even tarry a while.

The couple seemed spooked by Stacy’s attempt to lure them in with her expression of what could only be best described as a mix between a Cheshire cat and used car salesperson in desperate need of a commission. They looked at each other, exchanged inaudible words and simultaneously shook their heads in agreement before bowing their heads to avoid Stacy’s stare and walking away.

Stacy’s smile faded. “Ugh.” She sighed heavily.

It wasn’t that she didn’t get it. She understood why people weren’t coming in—her café was still relatively new and she didn’t know much about marketing or drumming up good publicity. As a result, she was a big question mark to potential customers. They might assume the worst about the food of an establishment with no takers, and most people needed the validation of other patrons before taking a chance, so it was a big catch twenty two. But the sting of rejection never got easier or felt less personal.

She balled her hands into fists and squeezed, digging her nails into the palms of her hands. “No. It’s their loss.” She said, as though trying to convince herself of this fact.

Even though she knew it wasn’t a personal affront to her, she was hard on herself every time a similar scenario occurred, which was frequently. This was her way of not beating herself completely up and surviving the long, quiet days.

Feeling slightly better, she slumped back onto her counter and picked up her old black I-pod, shuffling through the tracks of her easy café listening playlist while snippets of different songs played over the speakers. Lame. Sad. Boring. Too upbeat.

Maybe some different music would ease the disappointment, or at the very least give her something to do, she thought, switching to her personal playlist of tunes.

“Now, that’s what I’m talking about. I love this song!” chimed a male voice as Gladys Knight’s sultry voice filled the store.

A startled Stacy looked up at Jack, an auburn haired man with murky green eyes in his early thirties who had silently entered the shop while Stacy was busy DJing her pity party of one. He proceeded to do an awkward two-step to the funky melody. Stacy looked on with surprise that he recognized the artists and laughed.

“Hey, Jack!” Stacy beamed, relieved to finally have some company. She had gotten too used to talking to herself.

“The usual?”

She set down the mp3 player and slid on gloves while walking over to the food prep area.

“You know it.” Jack replied, giving up on his dance moves and sidling up to the counter.

Stacy had already gotten to work. Jack was one of the few people on her shortlist of dependable customers. He came in every weekday, ordered the same thing, and was one of the only reasons she was still able to keep her business barely afloat.

While Stacy busily made his food, Jack looked on nervously, mustering up the courage to say something.

“So, any plans for the weekend?” Jack finally asked tentatively.

Stacy frowned, “I wish. I’ll be right here, as usual. Pay the cost to be the boss, right?” She picked up a handful of wheatgrass and put it in her juicing machine.

“You work too hard. You deserve a break. Don’t you think?” Jack said, watching Stacy admiringly.

“Yes,” she laughed. “But I can’t rest until this place picks up and I can afford some help.” She immediately thought about how impossible that prospect seemed and the smile faded from her face.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way, right? Besides, I’m sure it will once word gets out. Your food is really good, and I’ve told all my friends in the Vegan community.”

A smile spread across her face. “Thanks. I really appreciate that.” she replied, her back still facing Jack as she moved about swiftly and expertly. It was obvious she was comfortable and in her element.

Stacy finished up her prep and brought Jack’s order to the register. They smiled at each other before she started to ring him up.

“One neatball avocado collard wrap with extra cashew cheese, a shot of wheatgrass, and two nollhouse cookies. That’ll be twenty five dollars.”

Jack handed Stacy thirty dollars cash. She returned his change and he immediately deposited it whole into the tip jar.

Jack ran his hand through his perfectly coifed hair, and looked down at the counter top bashfully. “Uh, this is a little weird to say but—“

“Finally…” Stacy said, confusing Jack.

He looked up at Stacy questioningly only to realize she wasn’t talking to him, but Bo, a tall, dark, handsome, and muscular man, entering the shop carrying a bag of groceries.

“Oh,” Jack hung his head at Bo’s bad timing. Stacy was clearly distracted and her entire demeanor had changed.

“Huh?” She asked, looking back at Jack while Bo strolled behind the counter, dropped off the bags, and waited for Stacy to finish up.

Jack glanced uncomfortably at Bo. “Oh... I-uh-left you a little something.” He pointed towards five-dollar bill resting in the tip jar.

Stacy raised her eyebrows. “Thanks, as usual!”

Jack nodded. He paused awkwardly and looked towards the crumpled up bill and back to Stacy.

“Yep. So, okay. Have a good weekend!”

Jack rapped his knuckles on the counter top, picked up his package of food, and headed towards the door.

Stacy turned her attention to Bo, who shook his head with disdain. Without saying a word she began unpacking the grocery bags.

Bo broke the silence. “I’m really trying to figure out why you need me to pick up groceries when no one is ever in here except that guy.”

Without looking up from what she was doing, Stacy replied calmy, “I need you to pick up groceries because we sell food.

Bo looked over at the lengthy Vegan menu board. “That’s a stretch in more ways than one.”

“Really, Bo? Not today. Okay?” Stacy said, losing her chill despite her best efforts to not take the bait.

Bo cleared his throat. “Fine. Here’s your bill.” He pulled a receipt out of his wallet and handed it to Stacy.

She glanced over at the paper in Bo’s hands and completely disregarded it while continuing to unpack. “Last time I checked this was your business too.”

“Don’t try to put this on me. We may be partners, but this is your business, and I’m just an investor, remember? And since we’re on the subject, that usually involves seeing a return on your money.”

Stacy huffed. “Get in line.”

Bo reached for Stacy’s arm to stop her from packing. She tensed and finally relented to giving him her undivided attention.

“I know I said it before, but you gotta know when to throw in the towel. We need to be trying to recoup as much money as we can before we lose it all, which I don’t know if you’ve noticed but based on the evidence—”

“Please don’t start with this again.” Stacy said cutting Bo off and shrugging off his arm.

She walked over to the register, angrily retrieved cash, and begrudgingly handed it to Bo. He thumbed through the bills and she contorted her lips.

“Thanks for all the faith.”

“It’s business.” Bo said dryly.

Stacy smoothed her hair trying to remain calm and composed. “Anything else?”

“Yeah, actually. I, uh, got a permanent spot, so the movers will be by tomorrow to pick up the rest of my stuff. And there’s something I want to talk to you about then.”

Stacy’s anger quickly turned to shock at Bo’s news, but she attempted to hide it by de-stemming kale.

“I hate when you do that. Why don’t you just say what you have to say?”

But a buzz from Bo’s phone on the counter interrupted their spat. They both looked at the pristine, lit phone screen that had the word Mary, in what seemed like extra large mocking font to Stacy, across the face.

Stacy tried to appear unbothered as Bo slid his thumb over the green call sign and answered the phone despite their being in the middle of a conversation.

“Hey!” He said, and then paused.

Stacy tried to remember if he had ever sounded so happy to take her phone call.

“No, I’m not busy. One sec though—“ He looked at Stacy. “I gotta run. I’ll talk to you about that thing later.”

“Uh huh.” She replied, annoyed but doing her best to nod nonchalantly.

Bo quickly walked towards the door as Stacy watched him from the corner of her eyes. She managed to keep it together until the second the shop doors closed and Bo gleefully resumed his call, a large smile spread over his face. She threw down the bunch of kale, braced against the counter and tightly closed her eyes, holding back tears.


***

Lisa Leaps, Stacy’s twenty-nine year old best friend, stood in between two aisles full of splashy covered best selling self-help books flipping through Choose Yourself dressed in a business casual polo and tan slacks. Oblivious to her, a handful of people passed by with confused expressions on their faces, scanning the shelves. Lisa looked up just in time to make eye contact with a middle-aged woman wandering the aisle like a lost puppy.

“Ugh. Does anyone work here?” The woman asked to no one in particular. A small vein in her forehead revealed her level of frustration.

Lisa turned her back to the woman and watched from the corner of her eyes as she walked the length of the aisle, looked left and right, then turned to the left out of Lisa’s sight to try her luck elsewhere.

Lisa’s phone buzzed furiously in her pocket and she pulled it out to dismiss the notification, which read “quitting time”. After putting the phone away she promptly earmarked the page she was reading before placing the book, which had been concealing an employee identification badge around her neck, back on the shelf, and headed off towards the employee lounge.

As she walked away, the woman from before returned, having circled around the neighboring aisle, and bumped into Lisa from the opposite direction.

She incredulously stared at Lisa’s badge as though she had spotted Bigfoot himself. “Oh! An employee! Great! Can you help me?”

“Sorry, I would but I’m off the clock, and I’m kind of in a rush.” Lisa said side stepping the stunned customer before disappearing behind a brown door with a white Employees Only Beyond This Point sticker on it.

An hour later Lisa stood in her apartment building corridor knocking on apartment 1A’s door. A man in his mid thirties, wearing tattered, faded jeans from wear and tear as opposed to by the manufacturer’s design, and an old discolored t-shirt opened the door.

“Hello.” He said in a more curious than flirtatious manner. “Can I help you?”

Surprised by the stranger, Lisa double-checked to make sure she had the right place. Sure enough, she did.

“Uh… Is Ms. Mo here?” She asked, flashing the UPS delivery note that had been tacked to her mailbox.

“I’m from 2A and she always signs for my packages.”

“Oh.” He replied, as though his memory had been jogged. “Mom! 2A for some packages!” The man called out down the dark hallway where the faint sound of Wheel Of Fortune could be heard.

“I’m coming!” Ms. Mo’s old but strong voice replied. There was some rustling while Lisa and Ms. Mo’s apparent son waited in awkward silence in the dim corridor.

A few seconds later Ms. Mo emerged bearing four boxes and shuffled towards the door. Her son moved to help her but she waved him off.

“Lisa! Hi, baby!” Ms. Mo said with genuine joy and enthusiasm emanating from her voice.

“You meet my son, Don? Just moved back from Georgia and staying with me.” She smiled lovingly and proudly up at Don, who hovered a full foot over her petite, hunched five-foot frame.

Lisa raised an eyebrow at the thought of a grown man moving back in with his mother. Pathetic.

“Mmm Hmmm.” She murmured expressionless. As someone who wore her feelings on her sleeve and didn’t care who took issues with her, Lisa wasn’t too concerned about masking how unimpressed she was.

“Okay, ma. Everyone doesn’t need to know that.” Don said defensively, picking up on Lisa’s judgment.

“What? Well, I don’t mean to embarrass you, son. I just want people to know who you are so you can make some friends until you find a job.” Ms. Mo replied.

Don rubbed his palm down the side of his face and gave Lisa an embarrassed, tense smile aware of how bad this was all sounding. Lisa raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. As if it couldn’t get any worse; living with his mamma and jobless.

All she wanted to do was collect her things as quickly as possible at the risk that the more time they spent conversing would give Don reason to try and approach her out on the street or in the building in the future. Luckily, Ms. Mo had turned her attention to the reason for Lisa’s visit: her packages.

“Now, let’s see here. Spanx, Fashion Nova, Flat Tummy Tea, Fab Fit Fun, and Express Smile. Oh, I know this one. This is that teeth whitening stuff they said wouldn’t work on my dentures.”

Ms. Mo handed the packages to Lisa, whose turn it was to feel embarrassed—a rare occurrence. Did Ms. Mo have to put all her business out there on Front Street like that? She fumed as Don grinned.

“Okay. Thanks, Ms. Mo. Bye.” Lisa said, collecting her packages and walking swiftly to the elevator.

“Nice meeting you!” Don called out.

“Mmhmm.” Lisa said, impatiently pressing the elevator call button multiple times in rapid succession. The darned thing creaked and banged as it made it’s slow as molasses descent to the first floor. She sighed in exasperation.

She waited for a few seconds as Don and Ms. Mo continued to hover and smile at her from their doorway.

“Are you sure they fixed it yet, dear? Don, help Lisa carry her packages up to her door.”

“No! That definitely won’t be necessary.” Lisa refused politely.

Not wanting to endure the awkwardness any longer, she nodded one last time in their direction and finally opted for the stairs.


Lisa sat in front of the mirror in her bedroom applying bold red lipstick to her plump pout to polish off her expertly beat, contoured, and highlighted face. She removed her favorite blunt cut jet-black wig from its mannequin head, shook it out and tugged it unto her tan colored stocking cap.

Next, she grabbed one of the packages Ms. Mo had given her, opened it and carefully pulled the short, tiny red lace dress from its plastic package. She sucked in her stomach, which was already compressed to all hell by her Spanx, and wiggled the inflexible garment down her body praying that it didn’t rip.

Finally, she tucked the price tag into the side of her dress so that it was out of view and slipped her feet into a pair of four-inch nude heels.

After examining her sultry reflection and finding it to her liking, she pushed her chair back to stand and teetered into her living room, which had been transformed into a makeshift photo studio on the cheap.

A large white bed sheet duct taped to the ceiling draped down into a pool on the carpet floor to create what was meant to look like a real backdrop. Pieces of white foam boards Lisa had bought at the arts and craft store were positioned on chairs to bounce the quickly dimming natural light from the window unto the fabric.

Lisa picked up her camera from the circular glass table, tinkered with the exposure, set the timer, then positioned it on a book shelf full of self help books, and ran to her spot to pose.

An hour and a half and countless shots later, Lisa sat at her kitchen table scrolling through tons of photos on her computer, carefully examining and scrutinizing every detail and deleting most of the shots as she went along. Choosing just one photo from the hundreds of proofs was always the hardest part, but eventually she had a winner.

Of course, there was still work to be done. Nothing was complete without getting run through her multiple editing and filtering software programs. She loaded the photo into Shape Up, one of her favorite beauty applications, and skillfully enlarged her butt and cinched her waist until her shape resembled an hourglass. This was her daily routine and she had become quiet adept at it.

Two more beauty applications later and finally, she uploaded the photo to Instagram. Almost instantly a string of heart notifications popped up on her phone screen. It was always surprising how quickly those occurred, as if everyone was always on standby at their phones waiting with bated breath for a new photo to give social approval to. She smiled, satisfied.

She stood up and stretched. Gone was the red dress, it had been replaced by a big comfortable t-shirt and shorts, shape wear, heels, and wig. Exhausted from her second job, she yawned—her bare face completely unrecognizable from the photo on her screen—plunked her body down into her comfy couch and turned on the television for a quiet night in.


***

The vision of a small group of women crowded outside the glass walled aerobics studio made Toni Smith’s, the tall, overweight, African-American twenty-seven year old, heart patter. She joined the ladies as they watched in awe, with some even mimicking the moves of a packed class finishing up an amateurish pussycat dolls inspired routine.

The music ended and everyone in the class struck a pose. A second later everyone applauded and Kelly, a tall and model skinny Caucasian brunette, and the latest addition led that routine to the gym’s roster of fitness instructors, took a bow.

“Hi! Are you guys here for the next class?” Toni cheerfully asked.

One of the girls turned to face her, “Ugh. No. We didn’t make it in. We’re just waiting to take some selfies with Kelly after class.” She flashed her phone, which had a string of lights around the case’s front perimeter.

“Well, you know, dance your ass off is coming up next.” Toni said, seizing the window of opportunity she had been given.

Now that the class had ended a few more of the women were paying attention.

A second girl looked thoughtful. “Hmm. Sounds fun. Have you taken it before?”

Toni nodded proudly. “Well, kind of. Actually I’m the instructor.”

The first girl unsubtly scanned Toni from head to toe, and back to head, and then twisted her lips. “Oh. I think I’ll probably just do the elliptical after this.”

Her friend nodded fervently. “Me too. It seem like that class is more for seniors.”

“It’s not—“ Toni began to protest when a student opened the door and young women began to stream out, heaping compliments and praise on the Kelly’s class, and providing the group of women with the perfect opportunity to blow off Toni’s hard sales pitch.

“Great work today, everyone! Slots for the next class open up at ten a.m. tomorrow so make sure you set your alarms to register!” Kelly loudly projected to her students.

Toni, having given up on convincing anyone to reconsider her class, walked into the aerobics room and greeted Kelly, who was in the middle of a conversation with a student. “Hey!”

Kelly looked annoyed and confused as to why Toni was addressing her and kept quiet, choosing not to acknowledge Toni or her greeting. Her student also didn’t seem to give Toni the time of day and rattled on excitedly, barely even skipping a beat.

Toni tried to brush off Kelly’s rudeness and walked up to the sound system. She couldn’t help but overhear the student talking to Kelly.

“They’re looking for the next fitness star and I think you’d be great for it. The open auditions are tomorrow at two p.m. at the Black Box Theater.”

Toni was intrigued and continued to eavesdrop while pretending to be busy with the stereo on the shelf. Not fully paying attention, she mistakenly knocked over Kelly’s bag and a slew of contents from the bag spilled out on the floor making a clattering of sounds.

“Oh, crap!” Toni exclaimed, scrambling to set the bag upright and repack the contents.

“What the hell?” Kelly cried rushing over towards Toni wide-eyed. She glared at Toni with a sharp, contemptuous gaze.

Two girls nearby rushed over to try to help pick up the items, but Kelly brusquely dismissed their help. “I got it!”

Kelly quickly and purposefully stepped on an item, and started awkwardly picking things up given her reluctance to move her foot.

Having gathered a few items—a compact mirror, a tiny bottle of rose water, a pack of sugar free gum, and what Toni was sure was a nicotine patch, Kelly stooped over and slyly removed the item under her shoe, being careful to conceal it under the other objects.

“Sorry, I knocked it over by mistake.” Toni apologized, embarrassed at what a klutz she had been.

Without making eye contact, Kelly grabbed her things and speed walked out of the room ignoring and devastating the girls waiting to take selfies with her, who in turn huffed and rolled their eyes at Toni. It was a dismal start to the evening and Toni had a sinking feeling it was not going to get much better.


Toni looked at her watch and then faced the three thinning grey haired women that stood before her. She clasped her hands together.

“Alright! I see there are no new faces. Again, feel free to invite anyone you may know or spread the word.”

“The fewer people the better as far as I’m concerned.” Ms. Mizer said.

Toni sighed. “We’ll just get started. Are you ready to sweat?”

Ms. Wright, always front and center and rearing to go, put her hands up to raise the roof. “Oh yeah!”

Toni smiled, appreciative of her enthusiasm. The other two women gave subdued “Yeah’s” and Toni knew better than to push for an increase in energy as she attempted once before as a young and naïve trainer.

Toni fired up her playlist, and the catchy beat of Bum Bish, the biggest song you couldn’t turn on a radio, go into a store, or drive through a black and brown neighborhood without avoiding because it was ubiquitously on rotation, filled the room. Honestly, Toni had hated the song at first listen, but the infectious bass, drums, and melody and ratchet chorus had grown on her.

Ms. Mizer, or miserable miser as Toni secretly called her, covered both ears with her brown sun-spotted hands.

“It’s too loud!” she announced, her bat wings vibrating to the song’s heavy bass line in spite of her rigid body stance.

Ms. Wright frowned, deepening the lines in her forehead and at the sides of her mouth. “Oh, come on! What are you talking about? Just turn down your hearing aid.”

Toni looked to the third woman, the meek and mild widow, Ms. Joshua, for a consensus either way.

Ms. Joshua seemed torn on whether to side with the boisterous Ms. Wright or the miserable Ms. Mizer, who were both her good friends but the epitome of frenemies to each other.

“Oh, I don’t know…” she wavered, resulting in a harsh glare from Ms. Mizer. “I guess it could be turned down a little.” She mumbled, seemingly realizing the threat of Ms. Mizer’s considerable ire was way more menacing than the more forgiving Ms. Wright.

“Majority rules,” Ms. Mizer gloated at Ms. Wright being outnumbered. Toni reluctantly turned down the music to a more ear friendly level.

“What’s a bumbish anyway?” a smug, self-satisfied Ms. Mizer asked, to no one in particular.

“I’m not sure.” Toni fibbed, surprised that she had even been able to decipher the Ebonics laced track. Admittedly, she was well aware it wasn’t a work appropriate song but had been tailoring her classes more for herself than anything since her regulars were known for doing their own thing anyway.

“Ok, ladies. Let’s shake those hips and move those feet like you did back in the day! Let’s start with a grapevine!” Toni declared, quickly changing the subject.

She began to move from side to side and the group struggled to emulate her. They bumped into each other and failed to stay on beat. Toni watched them bumbling in the ceiling to floor mirror and tried to conceal her disappointment in the reality of what her career had become.


“I feel like our warm up and cool downs could be a little longer. You know, I want to make sure I don’t sustain any injuries. After all, my son is an attorney. And I wouldn’t want to have him contact Dave...”

Toni, who had lost track of how long she been tuning out Ms. Mizer’s latest unsolicited tip for how class could be improved snapped to attention at the mention of the club owner’s name. Smile and nod, she reminded herself, hopeful that she looked convincing enough for miserable miser to abandon all thoughts of escalating her suggestions.

After all there was hardly ever a class where she wasn’t cornered and subject to Ms. Mizer’s bountiful opinions. And she hadn’t implemented a single one because of course she resented being told how to do her job. In fact, besides it being a wonder why the woman insisted on returning to her classes what with all her critiques, it was also surprising that she hadn’t gone over Toni’s head sooner.

“Thanks for the feedback. I’ll definitely take that into consideration.” Toni replied, summoning her most professional tone and hoping she sounded convincing.

A dubious Ms. Mizer frowned, but relented. “Mmhmm. We’ll see.”

Apparently Toni’s attempt at appearing sincere had worked. She wished she could tell Ms. Mizer not to hold her breath or even suggest that she find another teacher to torment, Kelly perhaps, but unfortunately, she was in no position to be turning away students—even the annoying ones, and it was unlikely Ms. Mizer could even get into Kelly’s class.

Still, it never failed to surprise her how much of an expert everyone thought they were. She longed for students that actually respected her competence. She was sure Kelly’s lemmings didn’t question Kelly’s methods, nor were they overly concerned about breaking a hip anytime soon.

“Okay. I’ll see you next time.” Toni said, walking away quickly. She could sense Ms. Mizer wasn’t quite done with her constructive feedback, but Toni didn’t have the time or patience.

“Hey, Toni!” A male voice called to Toni’s back.

What now? Toni thought as she spun around to see Guss, the proverbial lunk and Toni’s manager, waving his giant palm at her. He had a protein shake glued to his hand and bulging biceps that always seemed to be flexed. Dave’s son was supposed to be overseeing the day-to-day operations of the facility but actually just spent most of his time hitting the weights for free and calling attention to himself with his loud mid-workout grunts.

“You got a minute?”

Unfortunately, it seemed Ms. Mizer wasn’t the only one who had some things she needed to get off her chest.

Toni looked at her watch. She was running late to meet her boyfriend, Eric, but it was obvious his question was more rhetorical than anything else and she was expected to make time whether she wanted to or not.

“Uh, sure.” Toni drawled.

Ms. Mizer pouted at the realization that her time was definitely up and slinked away.

“Great, because we need to talk. Come on in here.”

Toni gulped. There were some things you never wanted to hear you supervisor utter and this was one of them.

He retreated into his office and Toni nervously followed behind him and closed the door.


Toni rushed into Mama Rooster’s Soul Food restaurant still dressed in her baggy workout apparel and instantly felt completely out of place. Extra motivated to sit down and get out of everyone’s view, she quickly spotted Eric’s signature crop of tight Trinidadian curls atop his low fade and headed in his direction. She squeezed past the tables, which were crowded together to fit as many people in the establishment as possible, and steadied the few that her ample hips knocked into while bashfully muttering apologies to the displeased diners.

Finally, having escaped the mazelike obstacle course, she reached Eric, her big and sturdy thirty-two year old boyfriend, and planted a kiss on his lips before sliding into the booth across from him.

Toni picked up her menu. “Sorry I’m late...”

“Uh huh,” Eric said, seemingly distracted. He eyed a waitress approaching their table like an anxious kid on Christmas morning and let his face drop when she continued to walk pass and stop at the table behind them.

With the waitress out of sight, he finally acknowledged Toni. “Where were you? You know how hard it was to get us reservations on opening night? I thought they weren’t going to seat me.”

“I know. I tried to get here as fast as I could. It's just Guss decided to call me in his office to talk about work as I was leaving and basically said that if I can't get my attendance up or some personal training clients I’ll be out of a job.”

“Damn.” Eric said a bit absent-mindedly, his attention was still directed towards the swinging doors leading to the kitchen. “I’m sure you’ll figure something out though.”

“I hope so because my group classes are not doing great. And it’s super hard to get people to pay for personal coaching.”

“What are you worried about that for? You’re good for life.” Eric said half jokingly.

Toni twisted up her face at his blasé attitude. Sometimes she really regretted ever telling him about the two hundred and fifty thousand dollar lawsuit settlement she had won when it was discovered that the asbestos in her old apartment had been the catalyst for a host of her childhood health issues.

Of course it was a lot of money but she had practically been living off of the cushion since the age of eighteen and the well was starting to run dry. That part she had refrained from divulging.

Toni shifted in her seat and looked off to the side of the room. “I’m hardly set for life.”

But Eric had moved on from the conversation and was now preoccupied with the latest waitress to enter the dining room who was walking over to their table with two large trays of food.

“Oh, I think that might be ours!” He exclaimed, perking up.

“What? You ordered already?” Toni furrowed her brows in surprise.

“Yeah! You were taking so long and I was hungry. But I got everything the waitress recommended so we can sample it all.”

The waitress stopped at their table and dropped off the platters of crab cakes, cornbread, collard greens, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese in front of Eric. Another waitress followed closely behind with a second tray of plates and added ribs, mash potatoes, grits, french fries, a tall glass of beer, and a large salad.

It was enough food to feed a small army and wasn’t exactly good for keeping a low profile, which Toni almost always wanted to do when out in public.

She gaped at all the food disbelievingly and back at Eric, who had already started to dig in.

“What’s all this? You know I’m on a diet.” She purposefully cried loud enough to be overheard. She was acutely aware of all the stares and paranoid every single person in the joint was snickering about them as the last two people who needed to be eating so much food.

Also in the back of her mind was the fact that they would be splitting the bill as per usual, given Eric’s staunchly held beliefs about equality between men and women.

“Still? Well then you can have the salad. It looks… crunchy. ”

Toni scanned the plain pieces of iceberg lettuce, sparse slices of tomatoes and cucumbers, and croutons. It was a sad sight and the last thing she wanted to put in her mouth with all the other delicious looking options on the table.

“Yes, still. We’re supposed to be doing whole thirty together, remember?” Toni persisted despite the damage already being done—there was no sending the food back now.

“Cheat day. Bulking and cutting, or whatever they call it.”

Toni shook her head. “That’s not how that works. You can’t have a cheat day every day.”

“A few cheat days won’t hurt! Besides, you know I like my women with some meat on their bones.”

Toni narrowed her eyes. “Women or woman?”

Eric took a sip of his beer. “Women. Woman. Same difference!” He teased.

Toni picked up a golden french fry and threw it at Eric, who caught it in his mouth like a trained dolphin being rewarded for a trick, with a grin. She glared at him before picking up a few more of his fries and popping them into her own mouth. They were hot, crunchy, and salty just the way she liked. Damn, why did they have to taste so freaking good?

Eric slapped the table. “Atta girl!”

Toni rolled her eyes at Eric’s terrible influence over her and stole a chicken drumstick. The succulent meat fell off the bone and the juices and spices melded in her mouth. She was in trouble.

CHAPTER TWO





It was after ten o’ clock when Stacy rolled her body up on the tip toes of her well worn black flats and reached for the metal shutter door handle. She grabbed a hold of it and in one fell swoop pulled down to slam the shutter to the ground in a loud thud. She clasped the lock shut and turned around to face a slew of discarded orange boxes strewn across the ground in front of her store like autumn leaves scattered on a windy fall day.

“Are you freaking kidding me?” She grumbled to herself while bending over to scornfully pick up the trash.

Her back ached and she felt regret at her decision to keep the store open an additional two hours past closing just in case any other customers wanted to come in at the last moment, as it hadn’t turned out to be fruitful.

Truthfully, she had hoped to catch a few of her neighbor’s customers that might be in the mood for some real food, but she should’ve known that no matter the time of day people always seemed to prefer sweet, unhealthy fare.

Stacy walked slowly past the vibrant storefront next door holding the boxes by her thumb and index fingers far away as possible from her body. Try as she might, she couldn’t look away and an instant pang of jealousy ran through her veins at what she saw: customers, and lots of them.

In a defiant fit she started to loosen her grip on the trash with the intention of dropping everything on the sidewalk in its rightful place seconds before a short couple with similar multi-colored hair, oversized frames, and nautical themed outfits exited the shop.

Stacy spun around quickly to take off hoping they hadn’t seen her so much as contemplating the abhorrent and petty behavior.

“Excuse me!” The girl called out to Stacy in an urgent, high-pitched voice that made Stacy freeze and grip the boxes tighter out of guilt.

Stacy swallowed and tentatively glanced over her shoulder at the couple.

“Do you mind taking a picture of us?”

Stacy knew she hadn’t actually done anything wrong, but inexplicably felt compelled to say yes if only to ease her conscience and redeem herself in the eyes of these strangers—just in case they knew what she ha planned.

She turned around slowly and replied lamely. “Oh...uh, okay. I guess.”

She discarded the trash in the bin, wiped her sweaty palms into her slacks and accepted the sleek I-phone that was so pristine it looked like it had just come off the shelf of the Apple store. It was a far cry from Stacy’s five-year-old brick of a phone, which her girlfriends teased her relentlessly about.

“How do I turn this thing on?” a perplexed Stacy wondered, turning the button free, all glass phone over in her hands.

“Oh, sorry.” The girl said collecting the phone and holding it up to her face before handing it back to Stacy.

“Facial recognition.” She bragged.

Stacy nodded and waited for them to position themselves just so in front of the garish orange and white neon sign that read, For Real Do. The girl held her boyfriend by the shoulders and turned him on an angle, then gave him a once over.

“Hold your head up, Jai, otherwise you’ll look like you have a double chin.”

Her boyfriend unenthusiastically lifted his head up a couple of inches into a position that was reminiscent of a portrait that belonged above the fireplace mantle of a very wealthy family.

Finding her boyfriend’s adjustment to her satisfaction, the girl stepped in front of him, expertly tilted her head to one side, and held up her orange box like she was one of Howie Mandel’s Deal or No Deal suitcase girls. It was one of the most unnatural poses Stacy had ever seen but the girl nodded firmly at Stacy and flashed a wide-eyed grin.

Figuring that was her cue Stacy pointed the phone at them, but surreptitiously focused in on what has going on in the background inside For Real Do. Jubilant customers waited in line, scraped the bottom of their cups, and took overhead photographs of their treats. Bodies stood in close proximity because all the seats were occupied.

Every few seconds cash and credit cards were rapidly being handed over to the three overworked cashiers. Three guys maneuvered around each other non-stop in the back scooping lumps of cookie dough into cups and cones and thrusting them into the hands of eager millennials.

For Real Do had opened a few months after Stacy and it was everything she had hoped The Bright Side would be but hadn’t been able to realize.

“Um. Are you taking us?” The girl in front of Stacy asked accusingly knowing full well the answer was no and snapping Stacy back to her task at hand.

Stacy hastily pressed the screen and handed her the phone.

The girl held the device mere inches away from her face and her eyes closed into slits while she scrutinized the results. Her boyfriend, grateful for the break, abandoned his WestPoint like stance and snuck some bites of his cookie dough.

Meanwhile his girlfriend pouted her over lined mauve lips in severe disappointment. “Oh, you only took one?” she asked, swiping her finger across the screen back and forth in disbelief.

“And it’s lean and blurry...” She added quizzically like she couldn’t figure out how that was even possible. Stacy suddenly felt like she was on a bad interview instead of doing a stranger a favor taking a non-noteworthy picture.

The girl extended the phone back towards Stacy again expectantly and Stacy stared at it contemplating how to politely blow them off.

“Can you could take another, please? Do you mind?” The girl said switching over to a sickly sweet and inauthentic voice upon realizing Stacy’s hesitation.

Stacy relented as they repeated the positioning routine from before. She snapped a few more photos in rapid succession and waited as they dissected whether Stacy’s latest attempt would do. Every second she stood in front of the store made her more and more uneasy.

“Hmmm. I knew I should have asked an Asian person.” The girl brazenly mumbled under her breath, not very discreetly.

Then as if Stacy hadn’t heard her, the super sweet, polite voice was back on, “Maybe just a couple more? One is bound to be good.”

Stacy ran her tongue across her top and bottom teeth, amazed at the gall of this woman. She had endured a long day and this was the last thing on earth she wanted to be doing right now. And how presumptuous was she to not think Stacy had somewhere to go, even if she didn’t.

Yet, as per usual, Stacy’s graciousness and kindness prevented her from turning them down. Candor had never been her strong suit.

No good deed, she thought as she reluctantly gave in and fantasized about letting the phone slip to the concrete ground before violently pushing the thought out of her head. Maybe Jack was right and she did need to unwind.


***

Lisa lounged on her couch in front of the dusty 32” television where a dramatic Scandal love scene with a posh Olivia Pope pinned up against a wall by Fitz Grant, unfolded on the screen. But Lisa barely looked up from absent-mindedly refreshing her page for the umpteenth time that night.

Her picture from earlier on in the day had racked up thousands of likes and a handful of comments and she was feeling very pleased with herself. With each tug of the screen a new heart of approval appeared and she just couldn’t get enough.

She waited a few seconds to give the system time to update and was just about to refresh her page again when a notification, symbolizing a direct message, popped up from an unfamiliar and tacky screen name.

She hovered her finger over the user’s empty profile picture convinced it was spam. Curiosity soon took over though and she clicked the notification to reveal the message.

Sugar Daddy: Hey sexy. You look amazing. Not that it matters, but do you have a man? I want to give you the world you deserve.

“Get on Fitz’s level and then we can talk.” She said with a roll of her eyes. Just as she was about to delete the message from the desperado, the doorbell buzzed. The time on her phone read 11:00pm and she snapped her head towards the door with a cross look on her face.

“Who in the hell—it better not be anyone asking me if I to switch my electricity provider again!” She bellowed loudly enough for the person at her door to hear in hopes of scaring him or her off.

“Who is it?” She spat out irritably when the bell buzzed yet again, this time in playful short bursts.

“It’s me! Open up!”

The tension in Lisa’s body and face instantly faded. Confused, she paused the show, dragged herself out of the couch, and quickly disassembled her makeshift studio.

“Hello?” Stacy said impatiently, rapping on the door. “What’s all that racket? You going to let me stand out here forever?”

“One second. I’m indecent.” Lisa called out, while balling up the sheet and stuffing it, along with her bounce board and DSLR camera, in her hallway closet.

“Girl, last time I checked we had the same stuff.”

With everything put away, Lisa opened the door to find Stacy in a tight, short V-neck dress, one arm folded across her body and the other propping up her chin as though to keep her from falling asleep on the spot.

“About time!” Stacy said coming to life and sauntering past Lisa into the apartment.

She surveyed the dirty cups, empty plates, and stack of books on the coffee table, clumps of dust balls, clothes strewn haphazardly across the floor, and multiple empty cardboard amazon boxes stacked in a corner disapprovingly before slipping off her Jacket and plopping down on Lisa’s couch.

“This place is a mess. You know, cleanliness is next to,”

“Godliness.” Lisa completed the sentence. “Uh huh, so I’ve heard. Then again we were made in his likeness so maybe he’s just a slob like one of us.” She said dismissively while playfully referencing the Joan Osborne song lyrics.

No formal greetings and pleasantries were necessary between the women who had known each other since freshman year of high school and were practically sisters.

“I’m just saying. Do I need to stage an intervention?”

Lisa closed the door and decided to ignore Stacy’s dig hoping she would drop it. Instead, she stared at her unusually dolled up friend with three crinkles formed across her forehead.

“You’re not making matters any better. What in the world are you wearing?” Lisa asked disapprovingly. She slowly approached Stacy like a scientist enthralled with a specimen.

Stacy browsed down at her outfit clueless as to what Lisa’s problem was; the sequins had already begun to flake off and litter Lisa’s couch. She casually brushed them off the brown leather forgetting all about her criticism against Lisa’s level of cleanliness, before shooting Lisa a defensive glare.

“I believe the word is a freakum dress. This used to be my go to back when I was single.”

“Uh-huh. I remember all too well. But that was five years ago.” Lisa reminded Stacy dryly while shaking her head.

“Fashion is all cyclical, right? So I’m bringing it back.”

“Back to the grave?” Lisa teased with a smirk.

“No, to the club; where we’re going tonight.” Stacy replied smartly, unfazed by their rapid-fire banter. In fact, Lisa was the only one she felt comfortable talking to in such a manner.

Lisa shook her head vigorously finally understanding what Stacy had planned with this unannounced visitation.

“We? Oh no, no, no.”

“What? You’ve got other plans?” Stacy asked knowing full well the answer was no.

“Maybe! I could have someone on his way over or in my bedroom right now.”

Stacy raised an eyebrow and made an incredulous face at the thought of the voluntarily single Lisa having a man.

“I thought Jesus was your boyfriend.”

“Ha ha! Jokes on you; I’m focusing on self right now.”

“Right, right. Well, I need you to focus on getting dressed.”

“Sorry, but Nope. I catch up on Scandal on Fridays.” Lisa sat down next to Stacy, picked up the remote, un-paused the show, and kicked her feet up on her coffee table after sliding some books to the side to make room.

Just as soon as she amateurishly set the remote down on the couch, Stacy picked it up and pressed pause again.

“Hey!” Lisa protested lurching for Stacy’s arm, which she held just out of Lisa’s reach even in her confining outfit.

“Stop! Catching up implies you haven’t seen something before and I know for a fact you have because it’s from season three. And there is never anything worth watching on live T.V. on a Friday night. So, come on! We are too young and work too hard to be so boring.” Stacy pleaded while using her other long arm to keep Lisa at bay.

Having seven inches on Lisa’s five feet two inches frame came in handy at times.

Lisa narrowed her eyes and abandoned trying to recover the remote. She sat back and picked up her cell phone. “Fine. Keep it. But I’m still not going anywhere.”

Realizing Lisa was still unconvinced and knowing how stubborn she could be, Stacy switched to a different tactic—the sympathy card.

“Seriously? Please, Lisa! I need to go out tonight and I’m definitely going to need my wing women. Plus, you know I’d do it for you!” Stacy persisted, attempting to give her most irresistible pout and puppy dog eye combo.

Lisa rolled her eyes because she knew Stacy was right. She furrowed her brows, dreading the thought of leaving her comfortable spot on the couch. But knowing she had been hooked, she sighed. “Oh, alright. Fine.”

Stacy perked up as Lisa got up and walked into her bedroom to get dressed. She unpaused Scandal and picked up her phone. “Yay! You the best! I’ll text Toni!”

As Stacy tapped away on her phone, a black dress flung from behind her narrowly missed her head and landed into her lap, covering the screen completely and bringing her texting to a halt.

“I’m not going out with you looking like that. You’re welcome!” Lisa called out from her bedroom.

A startled Stacy spun around and scrunched up her face in Lisa’s direction before dubiously picking up the dress from her lap and examining it. She was prepared to be unimpressed, but instead her face lit up at the admittedly cute backless number.

“Ooh. Good luck getting this back.” She whispered to herself excitedly.


***

Stacy’s red corolla rolled on to a busy main street with Lisa huddled in the back corner like a prisoner of war, and Toni firmly planted on the edge of the passenger seat leaning so far forward that her seatbelt was basically rendered useless. Music with a catchy bass line thumped loudly from Club Vineyard, filling the whole block.

Stacy parked the car and the women all filed out of their respective doors and surveyed the situation before them. A huge stone faced bouncer stood between a line of young club goers, probably fifty people deep, and the entrance to the club.

“Um… Stacy? You notice anything strange?” Lisa snarled.

Stacy gawked at the crowd, all dressed in white, in disbelief. In contrast the ladies stood out like sore thumbs: Toni in her loose velvet black tracksuit and heels, Stacy in Lisa’s little black dress, and Lisa in a pair of ripped jeans and a black blouse. Lisa still hadn’t bothered to apply makeup and had her hair pulled back into a low bun, a far cry from her earlier photo shoot getup.

“We’re never going to get into this obviously all white party dressed like grim reapers.” Lisa complained. “We might as well turn around and head home.” Although she looked nothing like her online persona she was always afraid someone would recognize her and turn her into an Instagram Vs. Reality meme on the spot.

“No. We have to get in tonight.” Stacy said defiantly, an almost desperate tone in her voice as she scanned the small shops along the block for a quick solution.

“Why’s that?” Lisa pressed.

“Look! They should have something that’s cheap.” Stacy said, ignoring the question and pointing at a storefront named Dirty Dawg with three large neon red X’s in the window.

“Are you crazy?” Lisa started. “/not the kind of cheap you’re going for.”

“Um, you know I don’t cosign very often with Lisa, but she has a point!” Toni finished.

But Stacy was already crossing the street towards the store.

Lisa and Toni shook their heads at each other.

“She. can’t. be. serious.” Lisa said, punctuating each word for dramatic effect, as they watched Stacy enter the sex shop undeterred, before crossing the street themselves to join her.

Thirty minutes later Toni shifted from side to side uncomfortably in a white satin robe trying to give her feet temporary reprieve, while Stacy waved violently at the smoke the hipsters in front of them blew into their faces in her lacy new lingerie, and Lisa leaned up against the wall in a nurse’s outfit for the kinky role-players out there.

They were towards the very back of the line and it hadn’t moved since they had joined it. Lisa folded her arms across her chest and tiptoed to peer over the heads of the people in front of her.

“I can’t believe we have to wait in this long ass line.”

Toni shrugged. “Well, we aren’t on the list.”

“When have we ever been on any list? We used to walk right up to the front and get in at Sevilla’s. Should’ve gone there instead. At least we’d have a chance of getting in because there’s no way in hell they’re letting us in looking like this.” Lisa shot back.

“We’re in white so we’ll get in.” Stacy countered.

Toni swayed to the beat. “I, for one, think this DJ sounds amazing. Sevilla is forever playing nineties slow jams and I don’t want anyone trying to cop a feel with me tonight.”

Stacy smiled at Toni. “Thank you, Toni. Can you tell librarian Lisa to stop complaining and be positive like you? This is one of the hottest clubs right now!”

Stacy gave up on trying to fan away the smoke and began hacking away passive aggressively to signal her discomfort.

“I work at a bookstore, not a library.” She spat, failing to see Stacy’s humor.

Lisa tapped the culprit, a bony Audrey Hepburn looking brunette with bangs, on her fragile shoulder. “And do you mind? You’re killing us with second hand smoke.”

The brunette glanced back mid drawl as though she were about to tell somebody off, but she took one look at Lisa’s annoyed stank face and decided not to. Her cheeks puffed out as she held the smoke in her mouth and scooted to the side to finish her cigarette.

Stacy admired Lisa’s frankness and smiled gently at her in awe and appreciation. Then feeling obliged to cut her some slack noted the time on her phone. “Ugh. It is taking forever to get in. I wonder what the hold up is.”

“You, you, you.” Chimed a nasally voice from up ahead, catching Stacy’s attention.

She looked up from her phone to see a young, wild haired guy in skinny jeans, walking up and down the line hand picking women to seemingly accompany him inside.

“Would you look at this? I didn’t realize I was going to be auditioning to get in the club tonight.” Lisa said with a deep eye roll, disgusted at what she was witnessing.

Before Lisa could finish shaking her head, Stacy stepped out of line, raised her hand in the air and waved it around to get the man’s attention.

“Hey! What about us?” she called out.

Lisa grabbed Stacy’s arm and pulled it down. “What? Are you crazy? I am not going to demean myself—“

“There’s a twenty dollar cover after midnight and I doubt we’ll get in by then.” Stacy said matter of factly.

“Huh? Women too?” Lisa exclaimed in outrage.

Stacy nodded. Lisa’s mouth dropped and she let Stacy’s arm go.

Stacy waved at the guy once again. “Hey, over here!”

The man was mid observation of a group of young ladies further ahead when Lisa’s eager hand movements and risqué outfit caught his attention. He walked towards their group and rubbed his hands together, mulling over their proposition.

“Well, well. What do we have here?” A confused and apprehensive look spread across his face as he drew nearer and got a better look. “I dunno. Ya’ll look a little on the mature side.”

“Well, you know what they say about mature women...” Stacy countered impulsively, trying to come up with some appealing stereotypes about older women. She was terrible at flirting and struggled to find a compelling argument.

“That they’re desperate? Bossy? Demanding?” He offered.

“I was going to say experienced, but if you want to be… spanked, we can do that too!” She spat out, surprising even herself.

Toni and Lisa stared at Stacy slack jawed.

The guy smiled mischievously and stroked the sparse goatee on the tip of his chin. With such a bountiful mane his lack of facial hair seemed peculiar.

“Word? Damn! Well, ‘aight then. My boy has a thing for thick girls anyway.” He smirked in Toni’s direction. “You, you, and you, follow me.”

Stacy’s face lit up and she dragged an apprehensive Lisa and offended Toni into his group of hand picked women. They followed closely behind him towards the raised browed bouncer.

“Nice try, but where do you think you’re going ma’am?” The bouncer asked wryly. He stepped behind the guy with the afro and held out one thick veined, muscular arm stopping Stacy, and in a chain reaction, Toni and Lisa, in their tracks.

“Oh, it’s cool, Leon. They’re with me.” The skinny dude assured the bouncer, who had no choice but to reopen the rope for them to pass, albeit hesitantly.

Lisa stood extra tall and shot the bouncer a side eye as she walked through the doors of the club. “Ma’am? Pppsshhh.” She brazenly spat the words out like bitter candy at the silent bouncer.

Inside the club was a far cry from what Stacy, Lisa, and Toni expected to see. Instead of a wall-to-wall space ram-packed with sweaty bodies, the nightclub was relatively sparse and subdued.


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