It was only about a block up the street to Rick's Cafe. It was a little hole-in-the-wall breakfast-and-lunch place, but Mike had told her it was one of Spearfish Lake's main focuses of male gossip, especially over breakfast at the big table in the back of the room. Brenda had met knew two or three of the people in there, and it turned out several knew Carole. There were several greetings of "Hi, how's it going?" and a couple of "Hey, Carole, long time! What's happening?" Just normal, friendly greetings. There was an empty booth toward the front of the place; Carole and Brenda sat down, and in a moment an older waitress came over and greeted them with, "Hi Carole! How's Wendy getting along?"
"Oh, about the same," Carole said. "Pretty good, really."
"That's good," the waitress said. "Tuna salad's on special today."
"Sounds good to me," Carole said. "On wheat, I guess, with a small iced tea."
"How about you, miss?" the waitress said. "Would you like a menu?"
"No, the same thing will be fine," Brenda said.
"Shouldn't I know you?" the waitress frowned. "You look familiar."
"I haven't been in here before. I'm Brenda Hodunk. I work at the Record-Herald."
"Keeping you busy, huh?" the waitress smiled.
"Oh, yes," Brenda admitted.
"Well, enjoy yourself," the waitress said. "Mike doesn't bite, but those dogs of his daughter's do some times."
"I've heard about that," Brenda grinned. "I've got to check it out some time."
"Kind of interesting," the woman said. "I should have your order up in a couple minutes."
As the waitress turned and walked away, the strangeness of the situation hit again. There was absolutely nothing strange, except for Carole and her handcuffs, and that was the point. Nobody made mention of it. As far as it went, on thinking about it, Brenda realized she had never seen any reaction at the Fitness Center, either. Hell, it was as if she was the only one who had noticed . . . something to think about, but not now. What casual sort of thing could she say to get the conversation going again? "You're not married, I take it?" she asked.
"Oh, no," Carole smiled. "Come on Brenda, let's face it. These things weird out a lot of guys. And, I have to say, the guys they don't weird out usually weird me out. When you get an exception, like, say, Randy, there's a line of women waiting their turn. But, I'm not that anxious to get married. I've got too much else going on in my life right now, so it's just as well."
Piss, we're right back to the handcuffs again, Brenda thought. Damn it, I don't want to seem nosy, but the alternative is to talk about me, somehow, and that means either Dragonslayer or the Record-Herald, and she'd probably think I was pretty juvenile to be wrapped up in a thing like Dragonslayer. And, she'd be right. Well, all right, you wanted to learn about Carole and the handcuffs, so let it happen. "I don't want to sound like I'm being nosy," she said. "But I do have to wonder how wearing handcuffs works with your clients."
"Amazingly well," Carole smiled. "I was a little surprised at that myself. I mean, everybody asks about it, but usually I tell them it's part of a long-term research project for my doctorate, so most people let it go. But very often, as we get a ways along it helps."
"How's that?" Brenda asked, really curious, now.
"Look, I hope you don't mind if I talk in general terms about it," Carole told her. "I can't get into specifics about clients."
"No problem," Brenda shrugged.
"Well, people will say things like, 'You don't understand what it's like to be handicapped,' and all I have to do is flash my wrists, and say, 'Oh, but I do.' It provides a point of common ground. Very often, it'll help get through some barriers. Like I said earlier, it's hard and can be very wearing. It can take a lot out of me, so I'll use what I can to help. I've got too much experience around that kind of pain and distress."
"Doesn't it sort of burn you out?"
"Yes, of course," Carole agreed. "But, it can be very rewarding, too. There's a real joy in helping people understand that life is still worth living, no matter what happened to them. That often balances off the pain."
"I've got to be honest," Brenda said. "I don't know how I could ever deal with a job like yours. I'll take being a junior reporter, thanks."
"Well, I didn't realize I could, either," Carole said. "It certainly wasn't what I set out to do. When I started wearing the handcuffs to research for my master's thesis, well, some perspectives changed. Then, when I got my master's, and this job down in Camden opened up, I was a real good fit, considering everything else that had happened. I have to admit, my job interview was real interesting, considering the handcuffs."
"I'll bet," Brenda laughed. "Hell, my interview with Mike didn't go real well at first, not till I did some writing for him. I can just imagine what it would have been like if I'd showed up wearing handcuffs."
"Uh, yeah," Carole grinned. "I guess I was sort of expecting that, but, let's face it, we're talking psychologists here. And, back then, I still had the idea of expanding my master's thesis on toward my doctorate."
Just then, the waitress showed up with the iced tea and the sandwiches. Even the thought of food made Brenda ravenous; she snatched up a sandwich half and took a big bite. It tasted wonderful, and so did the next bite. Food! How refreshing! It was a moment before she asked, "Are you still working on your doctorate?"
"Not really," the handcuffed woman shrugged. "Like I said, I've got too much else going on in my life just now. Maybe someday if I get burned out on what I'm doing I'll take another swing at it, but it'll be on a different theme. But, it makes a good excuse with clients."
"I suppose," Brenda said. "Your master's thesis, that was on life in handcuffs?"
"Not directly," Carole said. "It was more intended as a controlled stress, and I wanted to gauge my adaptation to it. I'm afraid the idea wasn't real original, but the handcuffs put a different twist on it, so it got approved. And, realistically, it worked."
"How'd you come up with the idea, anyway?"
"Television," Carole smiled. "Some sitcom, I don't even remember what it was. This guy and this girl were fooling around and he wound up getting handcuffs locked on him. He had an important business meeting, and they couldn't find the key. There were a bunch of sight gags, and stuff about the predicament he was in. Well, you have to remember that psychology departments get people doing all sorts of stupid stuff for research projects, and I knew I was going to have to do one. It seemed like an adequately stupid project. It didn't come about overnight; it took months, and I had a few other stupid ideas, too, but the more I thought about it, it seemed like it might work. That was before Christmas break. When I was home over break, I told my family about the idea, and they suggested I talk to Chief Novato about it. Well, I spent about six hours wearing those cop handcuffs, Smith and Wessons or something, and it was real clear that three months was a no-way thing. He pretty well agreed with me. I mean, I had these nasty marks around my wrists, and they hurt. Anyway, we got to talking about it, he suggested Darbys, and that led to the Soliels. I wore these for about four hours the day I bought them, and got some good advice from that woman I mentioned, and realized, yeah, that could work. And at least, it was better than any other idea I had. Actually, I'm a little sorry that I wore them that long."
"It'd have been better if I hadn't tried it out. My initial reaction might have been different," Carole shook her head. "But, it was a student study, it didn't really have to mean anything. No, I got the Soliels in early February, and it was May before I started. Let me tell you, I looked at that box sitting up on that shelf a million times, and a million times I told myself I was a damn fool for even considering it."
"You didn't do it on campus, but around here?"
"Yeah," Carole said. "You ever been to Athens?"
"Once or twice."
"There's some weird people running around there. Most people wouldn't bat an eye at someone wearing handcuffs. They'd just say, 'She's kinky', and let it go at that. But, there are some weird people running around Athens who I wouldn't want to meet while I was wearing handcuffs, either. Or, any other time, but especially while I was wearing handcuffs. Besides, the reactions of friends and family were part of the project. But, let me tell you, I was still one scared little girl when Wendy locked them on me. I had the guy from the Record-Herald come over and take a picture, just to let people what was going on."
Brenda smiled; she'd seen the picture, but didn't want to admit it. "So, how'd it go?" she asked.
"About like I expected," Carole said. "Actually, better than I expected. But then, the thing came up with Wendy, and I just didn't have the time or the ambition to deal with the project. I got to thinking that I didn't want to piss away the time and effort I'd put into it, and so I just put off taking them off for a while until things got back under control, a little."
"But you never took them off," Brenda observed.
"Well yeah," Carole admitted. "Like I said, stuff happened, and I was thinking about extending it out for a doctoral dissertation, and . . . oh, hell, I've got to admit it. After that long, I was used to it. I hate to say it, but it's just a little bit addictive."
"I can't imagine how it could be addictive," Brenda said, shaking her head. "I mean . . ."
"I understand," Carole grinned. "Look, everybody likes to feel a little special, a little unique, maybe a little exotic, right? I mean, why do people get piercings, get tattoos, and like that?"
"Uh, yeah," Brenda said with a frown. "It just seems a little, well, extreme."
"A little out of the ordinary, at least," Carole smiled. "Actually, don't make too much of that. The thing is, I hit a period there where it just seemed simpler to leave them on than it was to take them off. And, here we are."
Inwardly, Brenda shook her head as she took a sip of iced tea. No, it didn't make a lot of sense. Did it have to? "I can't imagine how you would see it as simpler," she said, confusion showing.
"Well, maybe not simpler. More comfortable, maybe. It could be my body got sort of institutionalized. I don't know how to say it. Brenda, if you were to wear Soliels for six months or a year, you might find them a little hard to take off, too."
Brenda shook her head, outwardly this time, an uncomfortable feeling in her stomach again. "I can't imagine how," she said.
"Would it help you if I told you that when it started, I didn't imagine it would happen, either?"
The cold chill in Brenda's spine got even colder. "Would you believe that's an even scarier thought than of wearing them for that long in the first place?"
"Yeah, I guess it is," Carole said absently. "I guess I never thought of it that way. Look, Brenda, I've got things I need to be doing, but let's get together again some time. It's been real nice to talk to someone about this, someone who's new to the idea. I can't talk about it like this with clients, and it's old hat to everyone I know, so I've really enjoyed this."
"I've really enjoyed it, too," Brenda smiled. And, she meant it. Carole Carter was proving to be just as interesting as she expected. A very complex lady, if a very friendly one. There was a lot of food for thought in what they'd said in the last couple hours. Besides, it was good to have a friend in Spearfish Lake, and Carole seemed to be becoming one. "Tomorrow, maybe?"
"Not tomorrow," Carole said. "Big day for me. Then, I'll be in Camden until Thursday, sometime. What time do you get off?"
"Four, but I could take some comp."
"What say we shoot for 4:30 at the Fitness Center? If it's nice, maybe we can run outside."
"Sounds good, but I won't be able to kill myself. I've got a meeting at seven."
"Works for me," Carole grinned. "I've got something in the evening, too. You hang in there with the workouts while I'm gone. Try to hit your goals, but if you can't make it, stop, rest a few minutes, and remember why you're there."
It was still early in the afternoon when Brenda made it back to her apartment above the Record-Herald, and the weather still stank. She was starting to ache, now; and even before she took off her wet clothes, she downed a full dose of ibuprofen.
The clothes were a mess, wet with rain and sweat. Fortunately, the apartment came with a small washer and dryer, very old, but still working, and she stripped off her clothes beside it, right down to bare skin, got a load running, and headed for the shower. A few minutes later, as she headed to the bedroom to get something dry to put on, she happened to glance in the full-length mirror. All that work, and not much improvement, she thought grumpily. Oh, well, it's going to take time. She stared for a moment, and then thought, well, it's going to come so gradually you probably wouldn't notice, anyway. Maybe you ought to do some before-and-after photos.
Oh, hell, why not? She pulled on a robe, went downstairs to the Record-Herald office, and got a digital camera, a tripod, and a Flashpath adapter. It involved some messing around to figure out how to run the timer, but in a few minutes, she had some front, side, and quarter nude shots of herself. Realizing that might not be the thing to show someone in the future, she dug around in a drawer until she found a rarely used one-piece swimsuit, and took some swimsuit shots, too, and they worked out pretty good. Getting the hang of it, and feeling a little frisky, she took the swimsuit off, and set up for a few shots that were a little more, well, sexy poses, again, nothing radical. You're just a little sick yourself, she thought, and quit after four or five. She set her computer to booting up while she got some clothes on, then had to get online to get the Flashpath software for it. In a few minutes, she dumped the photos onto the computer, and killed them off the camera – no point in giving Mike a thrill, she thought.
She looked the photos over. Not real pretty, although one of the posed shots really wasn't bad, considering the way she was laying – it covered up a lot of sins. At least, she'd have the shots to refer to in the future.
She was still hungry. That tuna salad had gone through her in a flash. There ought to be something in the refrigerator to kill the pangs that wasn't too fattening. She dug around there for a moment, not seeing much of anything that satisfied. Oh, well, some orange juice would taste good, anyway. That gave her a thought; there was a bottle of vodka in the cupboard that had barely been opened. Yeah, that would kill several birds with one stone. She mixed herself a pretty stiff one, then headed for the computer. Her talk with Carole that morning had given her a lot to think about, but even more important was to get down every detail of the conversation she could remember while it was still relatively fresh.
Brenda was a fast typist, and she noted down quite a lot in the next couple of hours, stopping every now and then to service the washing machine and the dryer. A lot of what she wrote was in direct quotes from the conversations, but there were comments and observations, too. Partway through, she ran the glass dry, and got up to mix herself another stiff one when the dryer called. It did seem to dull the pains and the hunger pangs a little.
Carole had all but admitted that she was a little bit crazy. Somewhere in there, the thought of Catch-22 came to mind, from where, Brenda wasn't sure. In the old Joseph Heller book, bomber pilots scared to fly missions could get out of them by saying the fear made them crazy – except that Catch-22 said that it wasn't crazy to fear flying missions, in fact, fear in that situation was perfectly sane. "That's some catch, that Catch-22." Brenda remembered the line from the book. Somehow, it seemed to apply to Carole.
Interesting woman, Carole Carter. Yes, a neat person, smart as hell; very nice and friendly, very open – if obviously a little weird. Brenda had learned much more than she'd ever dreamed she would in the two or three hours that she'd spent with her. There somehow was something that didn't make much sense, and two or three times they'd seemed to be getting near something deeper, but the conversation had veered off to another area. Well, it might come out, given time, and Brenda was in no hurry. She could foresee more interesting conversations.
Finally, her notes were getting complete. Well, there were more observations and speculations, but she was getting to the point where she was repeating herself. Oh, give it a break, she thought. She saved the work, got up, went over to the beat-up old recliner that came with the apartment, taking the now half-full glass with her. It felt good to just sit back, to lay back, to let her mind go blank. Soon, she found herself falling asleep, and didn't fight it.
It was a really, really weird dream. Like a lot of people, Brenda had dreams of being caught out in public in the nude, and the photos earlier may have touched this one off, she realized later. It wasn't anything special; she was dreaming of sitting at the computer downstairs, working, writing a story, about what, wasn't clear – but she was doing it in the nude, except for a bright, shiny chrome set of Soliel handcuffs. It seemed – comfortable. It wasn't alarming, like caught-in-the-nude dreams often were. After all, she wasn't nude, she had Soliels on. Somehow, the dream morphed, and someone was taking pictures of her, artsy photos, nude again, except for the handcuffs. She was happy to be wearing them, proud, showing them off . . . and somehow, the dream morphed out into a crowd of people, Randy one of them, staring at her Soliels and her naked body, a strangely sexy one, now . . .
. . . The dryer buzzed, startling her awake. "Oh, shit," she said, cursing the dryer for taking her away from such a pleasant dream. Half-awake, she looked down at her lap, where her hands rested, a few inches apart, just like she'd have been if she were really wearing them.
It didn't take much to analyze that dream, and perhaps the worst part was that she'd found it pleasant, instead of scary, as nude dreams often were. "Oh, shit," she said again, a little dismayed at herself. "Ohhh, shit."