It was much too early for Tessa Tillsdale to summon the strength. Every time she composed a thought, her head pounded, blocking entrance to the full functioning of her brain. Not so fast. Just who do you think you are? It teased her.
Her Doc Martens would have served her better than her stiletto party boots. Tessa sunk into watery patches of what she deemed solid through the marshy wetlands. She imagined the “No Trespassing” sign at the end of her journey, forbidding passage across what must be preserved open space. But certainly if there was a path, it was acceptable to walk on through. For the time being, it was the only place to be. She saw her town across the field, if only a mile away. Still the marshy field felt like endless, unchartered territory, the likes of which she had never seen before.
When Tessa felt she was in the wrong place, she shrugged it off. It was something she was accustomed to. Her hometown of Collinwood never felt like home. Its name suggested a town surrounded by an idyllic forest. Newcomers were often disappointed with its miles of strip malls and overpriced boutique shops. This wetlands preserve, if that’s what it was, could be added to the list of the town’s natural attractions, along with some parks and a polluted pond. The longer Tessa walked through it, the less she thought it was worth a “No Trespassing” sign.
Her heels choked up glop and slime, soaking her leather pants. She would skip work entirely, except Bianca, her boss, knew of last night’s plans. How could she not after Joelle announced it to the whole store as if it were some prize, a bit of juicy never heard gossip: two attention-seeking ladies have a plan to paint the town. Joelle Robbins, her roomie and co-worker, not to mention her best friend, bubbled with enthusiasm, “We’re going to ‘The Crush.'” No one could be bothered to respond.
She could have just as easily called it “The Velvet.” But heavens, you would never be caught calling it by its actual name, “The Velvet Crush.” You didn’t belong then. Tessa swore the place off, but somehow returned again and again, usually at Joelle’s pleading.
Last night’s events at their beloved Velvet Crush floated through her mind like pieces of rusty junk metal with dead links. Joelle was there and then she wasn’t. They had been together at the bar, drinking and dancing in a sea of sweaty bodies, her ears ringing, making communication impossible. Tessa felt sucked in and swallowed, and spit out into an empty, dark warehouse; She woke up wrapped up tight in a blanket. Lights out. All of it was a dark empty space in her mind. There had been a guy. Good-looking, she remembered, but his features were fuzzy. This morning, all alone, she was surrounded by cardboard boxes and milk crates. Someone either was moving in or out. A wine glass stained the previous night’s beverage confirmed someone drank last night. She would bet it was her.
It would have been impossible to make it back to her apartment to change and ready herself for work. This much she knew. She padded her jacket for her cell phone again. It was still missing, and she had no idea what time it was. The position of the sun in the sky indicated she might make it in time for her 10:00 a.m. start time. She could hardly react. All that mattered was making it through the marshy field. For whatever reason, she convinced herself that her arrival at work would fix everything. It was within reach, the building glistening like a beacon in the sun.
When she opened the doors of Sultrix, the glare of the white walls blinded her in waves and she stumbled, grabbing onto a glass shelf to steady herself. She slipped through to the back and hurried to her locker that she shared with Joelle. Sultrix, the only retail outlet that provided lockers to their workers. That really should have been the only red flag that Tessa needed, but she had needed this job more.
A quick turn of the combo lock and Tessa spied what she was after, a fresh, black shirt. Tessa held the fabric up to her nose and sighed relief. It was one of Joelle’s favorite. She climbed through the sleeves. It hung on her like she was playing dress-up with her mom’s clothes. No matter. It was clean and possibly a better wardrobe selection than she had in her closet in their apartment. She splashed water on her face and made her way to the floor. Her hair, a bird’s nest with at least a year’s worth of spray, would hold up for another eight hours. She would apply a few test samples of product to her face and be good to go.
The usual preparation for work would take considerably more time, and Tessa gave credit where credit was due. It was Joelle who kept Tessa looking sleek, lathered and primped with the proper products. Tessa admitted “beauty” was never her strong suit. After applying all the products for her specific skin type and color, Tessa felt she paled in comparison to her co-workers, suited in their chic, black attire. Any combination of black was acceptable, so long as your makeup was the star; it must shine through and say to the customer, “You, too, can have eyes like me.” Working at Sultrix meant a discount on all beauty supplies and an unending quest for eternal youth.
Sultrix had any beauty fix you needed; undo, redo, de-age, unblemish, brighten, tone, firm, prime, plump, volumize. Poof, Sultrix had your number and she kept score. Points for all your products. She knew you better than you knew yourself. It’s not something Tessa knew before she worked there, and now that she had settled in over the last five weeks here, it creeped her out.
Passing by the mirror, Tessa stopped and focused, as she usually did, on the circles around her eyes, appearing deeper and darker than they did yesterday. At 23 years old, her youthful glow diminished by the day, or so it seemed. She scanned the scores of eye creams on the shelves, all promising age-defying odds of perfect skin, and packed with minerals from alien planets, stuff she had never heard of. Dead sea salt, that can’t be good. She knelt at the creams as if in prayer, whispering the ingredients, “Bionic serum, butylene glycol, plant stem cells, madonna lily, alpha-arbutin.”
This is how the handsome man in the fedora hat found her.