Wednesday was a bitch! There was no other word for it. It was paper day, and it was a real downer, right from the start. Brenda didn't want to mess up her nice new jeans with the ink and dirt from the papers, so she dressed up in what she'd started to refer to as her "old clothes" – the ones earmarked for the dumpster. She realized it was a mistake, right from the beginning, but there was no time – and no point – in running upstairs to change. It seemed like it was a big step back to the old Brenda, the one she wanted to leave behind.
The handcuffs made Wednesday hell. She was doing mailing labels, ordinarily considered an easy job, but the moves the Soliels forced on her were totally different from the ones she had been used to doing, and she was slow and clumsy and hated the feeling. Her attitude, especially toward the handcuffs, had been slipping downhill ever since Tuesday morning, and now it was sliding at a ferocious rate. Now, she was really starting to discover what a pain in the ass they were, really starting to hate them, and worse, really starting to hate herself for having the stupid idea in the first place.
Perhaps Sally realized that Brenda was having problems and took a little pity on her, offering to swap jobs with her so Brenda could run the Saxmayer. Normally, it was the job that Brenda hated the most, but using it involved moves made with two hands, pretty much, and that made things go more easily. Still, Brenda had felt like she was letting the others down, and was sorry she hadn't been able to carry her share of the load. And, she was sorry that Sally had to take pity on her – that made it all the worse.
Thoughts of Wendy kept crossing her mind all Wednesday afternoon as she tied bundles of newspapers on the Saxmayer. Hell, Wendy would have been happy as all get out to be able to stand there, running the Saxmayer, even if she had to wear handcuffs to do it. If she hadn't had the accident, would she have done such a stupid thing? Brenda doubted it. On the other hand, a lot of people had to take pity on Wendy, just so she could survive. It was part of the life she lived. Oh, she did what she could for herself, and it was quite a bit, considering, but she was still pretty limited. Did Wendy hate herself because she had to have people take pity on her in order to survive at all? Brenda doubted it, but she could no more look into Wendy's mind than she could into Carole's. Wendy was always cheerful, always grateful for the help, even when it must have irritated her that she couldn't do it for herself . . . was that an insight into her? Might be . . . but it was hard to tell, right now. There were more paper bundles to tie, and it was still a bitch, wearing the damn handcuffs. Brenda knew she'd have to think about it sometime – but this wasn't the time.
Brenda didn't bring the subject up when she talked with Wendy on the phone after work that night. She did tell her how bad a day it was, how hard it was to do her job wearing the handcuffs, and, frankly, how lousy she was feeling about it just then. It was difficult to bitch too much to Wendy about the whole experience, just because she knew damn well Wendy would have traded places with her in an instant, if it were possible. But, Wendy did offer some encouragement. "Hang in there, Brenda. There's going to be good days and bad ones. You knew that when you started."
Although Brenda was able to dress nicely on Thursday again, and she felt better about it, she was still down. The handcuffs were a big part of it, but there was a lot of guilt over Wendy, too. Things were going to hell after a great start to the week. How could she hold out like this for a month, two months – even five years, like Carole had done?
Thursday was New Year's Eve, but Brenda didn't have anything special to do, no parties to go to – and it seemed a little lonely. She'd been surprised to find out that the regular Thursday night session was going to go on at Spearfish Lake Appliance, so she went to it so she could work on some other moves Gil had talked about. After all, it was something to do, rather than to sit around the apartment, feeling rather lonely, and get moody about how much the handcuffs were bothering her, how uncomfortable everything was, and how dumb she'd been to even consider doing such a thing.
Thank God for Friday. With it being New Year's Day, she was able to get together with Carole and Wendy again. It was good to be with people who understood, people who didn't ask stupid questions like if were those really handcuffs, or why she was doing such a stupid thing. Brenda didn't need someone to tell her it was pretty dumb; she knew it very well for herself, by now.
And, in fact, most of the day the handcuffs were discussed very little. Brenda had talked with Carole or Wendy each night, sometimes both of them, so there really wasn't much new to add. With Carole and Wendy, anyway, it felt like the pressure was off. Wearing handcuffs was normal in that house, after all. It was fun to just sit around, watch the parades, usually with Dan and Denise also in the room, sort of a surrogate family, and talk about normal things.
It wasn't until Dan and Denise faded to the den to watch football that the subject of the handcuffs finally came up. "I'm really glad you two had me over today," Brenda said. "Today would have been a bitch to be by myself, worse than ever."
"Why's that?" Carole asked; Brenda could see the psychologist coming through.
"Well, all I'd have done if I'd been by myself up in the apartment today would have been to sit around and think about how much I hate these damn handcuffs and how much I hate myself for being so stupid to get myself into this," Brenda said bitterly. "Being with you two helped me get my mind off it."
"They're getting you down, a little, right?" Wendy asked.
"No, they're getting me down a lot," Brenda said. "I know you guys told me I'd have ups and downs and I'd go through a pit of despair a few days into this, and damn it, you're right, but I don't like it very much."
"Well, you're not supposed to," Carole told her. "Look, like you said, I told you it was going to happen. It's what happens after you crawl out of the pit that makes the whole exercise interesting."
"I know," Brenda said, with not a little exasperation. "I sure hope it happens soon, though. For once, I'm not real happy with having a long weekend to deal with."
"You want to carry on with it then?" Carole asked.
"No, I don't," Brenda said flatly. "Even though once in a while something that passes for a little insight flashes through, right now, the whole idea depresses the hell out of me. But, I said I'd do it, and after what we agreed on, I guess I don't really get a whole lot of choice in the matter."
"You're trying to get through this thing on guts," Carole said. "Maybe that's good. I had to do it there, about this far into the experience. About all I can say is, relax and let it happen. It's not going to take forever. It's just going to seem like it. And I suppose, having a long weekend doesn't help. Do you have any plans for tomorrow?"
"Yeah," Brenda said. "In fact, I wanted to talk to you about that. I want to take a run back down to North Towne Mall, get a few things that we missed last week."
"Anything special?" Wendy grinned. "I don't see how we missed much."
"Nothing too crazy," Brenda told her. "It's just that I don't like the way I feel about myself when I have to wear the old stuff for grubbies on paper day. I also need something like a fleece top and a windproof pullover that will fit, not the grubby old shit I've been wearing. Maybe another sweater, to help layer with. And, I need a couple pair of exercise shorts and T-shirts, and two or three front-close bras. Maybe another inside top, too; one of those we got last weekend doesn't slip under the cuffs very well."
"That's a fair list," Wendy said. "It's good that you don't like the way you feel about yourself in your old clothes. That means you're making some progress. And yeah, that's probably more fit issues for most of it, rather than style issues. You should be able to handle most of it all right without me."
"I think I can, after what you taught me last week," Brenda said. "But Carole, would you like to go with me? I don't know if I can walk into North Towne Mall by myself wearing handcuffs."
"You're going to have to do something like that sooner or later," Carole pointed out.
"I know," Brenda said weakly. "Hell, if I'd just hopped into the car Monday, I could have done it, then. I'm not sure I could do it, the way I feel now."
"Sure, I'll go along, and help you get over the hump," Carole said. "But you know I can't do it every time."
"I know," Brenda said. "But thanks. This time, it'll be a big help."
Carole nodded. "It'll be fun for you to get out of town for a while, just to get out."
Brenda had never quite understood the thrills that some women got from spending hours cruising the malls, checking things out. She'd gotten a little inkling of it from Wendy the week before, and all in all the results of that part of the experiment had worked out pretty good, as far as she was concerned.
As it turned out, Carole offered to drive – she had to stop by her office to pick up a couple things, as long as she was going that way – and Brenda met her Saturday morning, wearing her new jeans and a sweater, with the fleece top over it. It was a warm day for January 2, and it was really all that was needed.
The mall was nowhere near as crowded as it had been the week before. Still, it was just a little scary to walk in there wearing handcuffs, although having Carole with her took away a lot of the sting. Yes, people noticed, and yes, people looked; Brenda could hear whispers, see the shocked expressions, although she was a little surprised at the lack of comment to her face. Damn it, how could people be so blasé, she wondered. On the other hand, when I first saw Carole, I didn't quite believe my eyes myself, and I went right on by without saying anything . . . food for thought.
Though Brenda's shopping list was long, it was mostly easy stuff to find, and she was able to get most of it at bargain prices, with Carole's help. In fact, the expedition went so well that Brenda decided to look for a new top, to replace the one that didn't work with the handcuffs very well.
Brenda was looking through some sweaters, seeing nothing much that would draw Wendy's attention – a reliable test, she'd concluded – when she heard Carole call her in a loud whisper. "Brenda! Come here! Check this out!"
Wondering what was going on, Brenda walked over to Carole, finding her going through a rack of women's business suits – the kind of clothes a professional would wear – like, say a psychologist. "Would you look at these prices!" Carole whispered.
These were nice outfits, nothing cheap – marked down to $12.99! There was no big sale tag, or anything – just the price tag. "Wow, that's something," Brenda said. "Someone must have missed a digit when they made up the tag."
"Yeah," Carole said. "This is the kind of stuff I wear at work, and I paid ten times this much the last time I got things. Excuse me while I clean them out of everything that fits!"
Even though it wasn't really the kind of clothes that Brenda would have thought about wearing around the office, at that kind of price, well . . . who knew when something like this might be useful? She and Carole weren't quite the same size, so she hunted down the rack, and soon came to a nice fawn-colored business suit that impressed her. "You think Wendy would like this?" Brenda asked.
"To tell you the truth, no," Carole said. "But she tends to go a little teeny-bopper and thinks the clothes I wear to work are a little office-dyke, anyway. Try it on and see what you think. Remember, this trip, you're shopping to suit you, not Wendy."
In a few minutes, Brenda had the outfit on. In the mirror, it looked pretty good. It didn't have the flashy, sexy look of the outfits she'd worn to the office earlier in the week; this was more professional, more sophisticated; she looked like a lawyer, heading to a courtroom . . . and with the handcuffs, where a lawyer belonged, on the way to jail. Perfect. Done deal.
The outfit looked a little stupid with running shoes and bare legs, and since Carole was still trying on outfits, Brenda decided to have a little more fun shopping – when it was like this, it really was fun. A nice blouse soon joined it; the pumps back in the apartment wouldn't go well, so she added a pair of those, and some pantyhose. She paid for the whole works, and while she waited for Carole, decided to put the whole package on.
"Isn't that something?" Carole said. "Clothes do make the woman, don't they? There's one here I really like, I think I'll wear that, too."
"No need," Brenda said. "After all, we're just going to stop by your office, and then head back."
"Oh, as long as we're going to be dressed as classy as this, let's go get a nice lunch," Carole grinned. "Come on, it'll be a treat. I'm buying."
The restaurant where Carole took Brenda was the sort of place she'd never been in before. It was really nice, well above her experience. The two of them looked pretty classy, but there was no way they were overdressed in the place. They looked downright sophisticated, in a nice restaurant. Brenda almost gagged at the prices on the menu, but since Carole had offered to buy lunch, Brenda didn't mind too much.
It proved that Carole went there occasionally, just often enough that the staff wasn't surprised to see her show up wearing the Soliels – or, to see Brenda the same way. That's got to give people some ideas, she thought. Oh, well, it's not like I know anyone here.
Lunch, though light, was excellent. Carole and Brenda had a cup of sharp, interesting-tasting coffee to follow it up with, and sat talking. "Thanks for coming, today," Brenda said. "This has been a better day than I thought it was going to be."
"I sort of thought it might be," Carole smiled enigmatically. "Sometimes when you're down, a change of scenery works wonders. Are you feeling better about the experience today?"
"I think I am," Brenda said. "Although I don't know what'll happen when I get home. I mean, in one sense, it's just a slight up in an otherwise down market."
"You're just going to have to work your way through it, wait things out," Carole said.
"I know," Brenda said, a little disheartened in spite of the last few hours. "And, I knew what you were going to say. But Carole, I've got a problem. I hate to come to you with this, and I hate to ask you, but I think I'm going to have to ask you to take them off."
"I can if that's really what you want," Carole said. "But I think it'd be the wrong move. You're right near the bottom now, and the only way from here is up."
"It's not that," Brenda explained. "Like I said, I don't want to do it. Look, I've got to cover a court hearing down here Tuesday. I can get away with this in Spearfish Lake, simply because I'm around the courthouse a lot and everybody knows me, and they pretty much know you, so they have an idea of what's going on. That doesn't apply here."
Carole nodded. "I can see how that could be a problem," she said.
"Mike and I talked it over," Brenda said. "He's been pretty supportive, but he can't go cover it, since he's got to take off as much as he can on Tuesday to get Josh and Tiffany off to Alaska for the Iditarod. In theory, I could ask Anissa to fill in for me, but she doesn't know anything about the story, or anything about courts, and she does have all those kids. That leaves me. Mike suggested I come down here to your office, have you take them off, cover the hearing, go back to your office, and put them back on."
"I could do that, if it's absolutely necessary," Carole said. "I mean, I thought you were talking about ending it, and, as I told you, I don't want to do anything that would screw up your job. But, are you sure you want them off, even for that short a time? It's going to raise hell with the perceptions you're getting."
"I know," Brenda said. "What's more, I know right now if I take them off I'm really going to hate putting them back on. But I don't have any other ideas."
"Speaking from experience, this stuff happens," Carole counseled. "I've just had to learn to bullshit my way through a lot of it. Realistically, you should too, and not just for the sake of this experience."
"All right," Brenda grinned. "I'm open to suggestions how I manage this."
"It's interesting," Carole said. "Speaking in general, there are no laws I know of against wearing handcuffs if you want to, although there are plenty against making someone else do it. Oh, there might be some out-of-the-way municipality somewhere with a law about it, but it almost becomes a civil rights issue if that sort of thing comes up." She took a sip of her coffee and continued. "There have been a couple of times I've had to point that out to people whose sense of propriety has been a little offended, usually wearing uniforms, but it's generally not illegal. Remember that."
"Yes, but it could be a hassle," Brenda said. "Remember, we're talking a courthouse. I might not be the only one there wearing handcuffs, and I wouldn't want to get confused with them by some security officer. They tend to run a little on the dumb side, anyway."
"Yes, that is a problem" Carole agreed. "I'll tell you one thing I've done in similar circumstances. In fact, I should have set you up already, just in case you need a smokescreen. No matter, I'll do it when we get to my office."
"Oh, a letter from Psychological Consultants of Camden certifying that you're participating in a long-term experiment, studying adaptive references to prolonged controlled physical stress. That, along with a couple of paragraphs of psychobabble no one understands because it doesn't mean anything, usually does the trick. With that, you can bullshit your way through a lot."
"Uh, yeah," Brenda laughed. "That could help."
"On top of that," Carole suggested. "I know you know Judge Dieball pretty well. Why not get together with him, have him call down here, and sort of prop some doors open for you, if you get my drift. Maybe you could have Harry talk to the security chief down here, too, maybe even have letters from them."
"That might work," Brenda said uncertainly.
"Oh, I'm sure it'll work," Carole said. "I've done it. Judge Dieball even helped me out like that one time, on a deal with a client. The situation was a little different, but really, you're only dealing with the security issue."
"I'd be almost willing to try," Brenda said. "I'm just afraid of what happens if I get held up somewhere by some dumbass security officer who can't read his own name."
"That's a risk," Carole said. "About all I can say is allow yourself some extra time. Look, like I said, I can take them off if I have to, but I don't think either of us want you to right now."
Brenda shook her head, and sounded dubious. "Well, I don't know . . ."
All of a sudden, a little girl's voice penetrated Brenda's consciousness. "Mommy, look! Those ladies have on handcuffs like Daddy makes you wear!"
About that instant, Brenda wished there were some way she could melt and flow away like water. Gamely, she looked up, and saw a little girl, maybe seven or eight, scampering over to them. "Ohhh, those are pretty!" the little girl said. "Can I see them?"
"Sure, honey," Carole said serenely, swinging to show the little girl the Soliels.
"Missy!" a woman's voice sounded. "That's not very polite!" Brenda looked up, to see a woman approaching the table; her face was every color of red Brenda could imagine. "I'm sorry Missy bothered you ladies," she said extremely apologetically.
"Oh, no problem," Carole smiled. "Don't worry about it. She's a kid, she's curious."
The woman looked down at the table, where both Carole's and Brenda's hands rested. "I hope you don't think I'm too bold, but she is right, though," she said. "Those are very pretty! I've never seen handcuffs like that before."
"They're pretty rare," Carole smiled. "They're Soliels, made in Belgium."
"They look very comfortable," the woman said. "Have you been wearing them long?"
"Five years, going on six, now," Carole said, showing some interest.
"Oh my!" the woman said. "I've never managed more than a couple of days without my wrists getting bruised."
Brenda smiled knowingly, and stole the next line that she was sure Carole would say: "If you're talking long-term wear, you don't want anything less than Soliels."
"Where do you get them?" the woman asked. "I've always wanted a pair of special handcuffs like that."
"A place called Black Rose, down in Glen Ellyn, outside Chicago," Carole told her. "I don't remember the phone number, but I'm sure they're in the book. They're on the net, for that matter."
"I'll have to remember that," the woman said. "Charles was asking me just today what I wanted for my birthday."
"I'm sure you'd enjoy them," Brenda said sweetly.
"Thank you," the woman said, very politely. "I hope we haven't bothered you."
"Oh, no problem," Brenda said nicely. "You have a good day."
"Well, I hope you do, too," the woman smiled. "Enjoy yourselves."
Brenda looked up, to see Carole winking at her. She gave a broad wink back, but otherwise kept her composure – and managed to keep it as Carole paid the bill, the two walked outside to the car, looking very cool and sophisticated indeed.
But, once the car door closed, both of them totally broke up in laughter. Bottling it up for the five minutes or so that it took the two of them to get out of the restaurant didn't help; now they could just do nothing but roll their heads and laugh, the tears running from their eyes, their sides hurting.
"Oh, God!" Brenda managed. "Did you see that poor woman's face . . ."
"Outed by her daughter like that . . . Oh, God," Carole managed.
"I'll bet I know what she gets for her birthday . . ."
"You thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Oh, my God . . ."
Eventually the laughter died down a little, enough that Carole could start the car – but it was a while before she could get it into Drive, since she broke up laughing again. "You know what she had to think, didn't you?" Carole finally managed.
"Oh, God . . . I'm afraid I do," Brenda laughed, then broke up again.
"The two of us, in handcuffs," Carole grimaced, " . . . just like a couple of sophisticated, kinky lesbians."
"I'd almost be afraid to tell her the truth . . . shatter her illusions," Brenda said, tears of laughter still rolling. "I guess maybe we did lay it on a little thick."
"Oh, I've had that kind of thing happen to me before," Carole said. "But never, ever, like that. I can't wait to tell Wendy."
"God, I thought I was going to die of pure embarrassment . . ."
"Oh, hell no, you carried it off perfectly," Carole said. "I thought I was going to be the one to die of it!"
"You like this, don't you?" Brenda grinned.
"Oh, my, yes, I love it," Carole laughed. "It may be the best part of the whole thing. People in Spearfish Lake are so used to me wearing the Soliels that they don't notice much anymore, but, once in a while . . . oh, my, that was fun . . . "
Finally, several minutes later, Carole managed to get the car out of the parking lot and drive over to her office. The work she had to do was minimal, but she knocked out the promised letter for Brenda. That took a while, since they'd gotten to the point where all one would have to do would be to look at the other and giggle, and five minutes later they'd still be laughing so hard the tears would be rolling. It didn't quit there; Carole had to stop twice at the side of the road on the way back to Spearfish Lake for laughter breaks.
When they got back, they found that Wendy was asleep, so they went over to the Women's Fitness Center for an exercise session – and it was still with them. They were running around the room's perimeter track, when Brenda started giggling, and before they could complete the lap, they had to stop, collapse against the wall, and let the peals of laughter roll.
"What's so funny?" Connie asked as the laughter died down a little.
"You'd have had to have been there," Brenda laughed, setting Carole off again.
"Yeah, and been part of the club, too . . ." Carole managed before her own total breakdown.
As Brenda went to bed that night, she was still suppressing giggles. She realized that a corner had been turned, that the dark hole of despair was something behind her, now. It was possible to enjoy wearing the handcuffs, to have fun with them, as well as just enduring them. It was almost a secret that she shared only with Carole . . . and maybe that woman, and maybe even Missy, too . . .