The Woman Behind The Curtain

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Author’s Note:

Workaholic Owen hears a woman’s voice coming from his bathroom during a power outage. When he finds out that his newest neighbour, Meg, is terrified of the dark, he does what good neighbours do: helps her out of the shower.

This story is part of the When The Lights Go Out universe. These stories do not need to be read in any particular order; they all revolve around the same event, but are stand alone pieces.

**

People were always surprised when I told them what I did for a living.

“A flower shop?” they’d say. “Really, Owen? Like… with flowers?”

Yes, a flower shop. The Enchanted Florist, to be exact, prominently located beside the Perks It Up coffee shop on Minwack Drive in Minwack Falls. People had a hard time accepting the fact that a guy like me owned that shop. Maybe it was because I looked like the kind of guy who worked with his hands, but not with something as delicate as flowers.

I couldn’t help it, though. I loved flowers. Always had, and likely always will. Flowers are simple. They’re there to be pretty, to make people smile, and to fade away when they’ve served their purpose. You give them a little bit of your time, your attention, the right amount of water and sunlight, and they’ll give you simple beauty. They don’t talk back, they don’t make excuses, they simply are.

Unlike people, who simply want everything.

I had two girls working for me in the shop. Not that I only hired girls or anything, but they did fill a role I couldn’t. Some customers found having a tall man with large hands behind the counter off-putting, so I got the girls to take orders and talk to the customers while I did the arrangements and all the behind-the-scenes stuff.

That particular day, Maria had called in sick, so I was stuck in the shop by myself until Lyla’s shift started. Lyla, being Lyla, showed up at twelve minutes after three for her three o’clock shift.

“The lateness is an issue, Lyla,” I said warningly as the front door chimed. My back was to the counter, but I knew it was her from the stomping sound of her Doc Martens.

“It’s hot as balls out there, Owen,” she replied. “I was walking as fast as I could. Any faster and I would’ve got heatstroke.”

“Well, luckily the store is air-conditioned,” I said. “And you can always sit in the cooler with the flowers. In fact, why don’t you do that? Take the inventory book with you.”

“Give me, like, three minutes to get ready,” she grumbled.

“You’re already late.”

“Fine,” she snapped, followed by the sound of her shoving her purse beneath the till. “I’ll just work my whole shift like this, shall I? Maybe I can rub some gardenias under my arms, just in case any customers happen to be offended by righteously awful B.O.”

I finally turned around and had to press my lips together. Lyla would have probably lost her mind if I laughed at her, but it was a fight not to. The top of her hair was matted to her head, but the rest of it poofed out in a frizzy mass of strands. Her glasses were slightly askew on her nose, and the carefully applied makeup she always wore was smudged and streaky on her face. Sweat stained the collar and underarms of her shirt, and I caught a glimpse of darkness beneath her breasts before she huffed and folded her arms across them.

“Maybe you should go wash up first,” I said, barely able to keep the chuckle out of my voice.

“Thank you,” she said sarcastically. “You’re so kind, Mr. Jervis. The epitome of generosity. People thought Ebenezer Scrooge was giving when he bought that fuckin’ goose for the Cricket family on Christmas? That’s nothing, nothing, I say!”

“Cratchit.”

“What?”

“The Cratchit family. Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. Not Cricket.”

“Nerd,” she muttered.

“Watch the tone.”

“What’re you gonna do, fire me?” she snapped, turning on her heel so she could go to the back room.

I sighed as she left. She was a back-talking, bold, hard-boiled bitch sometimes, but I couldn’t fire her. For one thing, not a lot of people wanted to work at The Enchanted Florist. For another, lateness and attitude aside, she was a damn good employee. She had the kind of mind I needed as a small-business owner, that unique way of seeing things that saved money and sold product.

The fact that she knew it made her difficult, but there wasn’t much I could do about that. Most of the time, she wasn’t in nearly as bad a mood as she was that day. Her mood seemed to fill the small store, heavy and humid in the air until I was as grumpy as she was.

“I’m heading out now,” I said when she returned to the front ten minutes later with her makeup redone and in a new shirt. “I had to stay late since my next shift didn’t show up.”

“It’s not staying late if it means you can’t leave as early as you want to.”

“Do you know how many hours I work a week?”

“Not my fault you’re a workaholic. Maybe you should try to get laid once in a while. You know, two birds, one stone. Less work, less high-strung güvenilir canlı bahis siteleri since you’d actually get off.”

“Watch it or I’ll call HR on you,” I warned.

“You finally hired an actual HR person?” she shot back. “Is that who I should talk to about getting a raise?”

I rolled my eyes. Of course I hadn’t hired HR. I had two employees. But she wasn’t wrong about being a workaholic who needed to get laid, unfortunately. I was leaving the store early, sure, but I left early on Fridays mostly so I could have a beer and sit on my balcony while I was getting the paperwork ready for the following week. That was my version of a night off.

“Whatever,” I muttered. “Just the usual tasks for tonight. Inventory, prep the delivery book for tomorrow morning, write off the dead stuff, fill the buckets, clean the—”

“Wow, it’s almost like I haven’t worked here for four years,” she said monotonously. “I know how to close the store, you know.”

“—and be nice to the customers, for once in your damn life,” I finished.

She flipped me off and grabbed a stool, dragging it behind her into the cooler so she could start the inventory. Rolling my eyes, I grabbed my bag and knocked on the cooler glass. Lyla and I waved at each other and I left the shop in her capable hands.

I lived in the apartments three blocks down from the shop, so I rarely drove to work. I also hadn’t been outside since I’d arrived just before nine that morning. Lyla was right; it was hot as balls outside. As soon as the door swung closed behind me, I felt like the air was wrapped around me. There wasn’t even a hint of a breeze, and the humidity was so high that even walking as fast as I could didn’t create a draft.

I was just walking through the parking lot of the building when that changed. The sticky heat seemed to scatter as the wind picked up. One moment, sweat was dripping down my forehead and into the corners of my eyes; the next, I was leaning into the wind as I rushed to the front door of the building.

Lyla might have been late, but she hadn’t arrived a moment too soon. Between the time I got into the building and took the elevator up to the fourth floor, then opened my apartment, the clouds had exploded into a complete downpour.

“Jesus,” I muttered, striding across to my balcony to look out at the rain. I could barely see the street. The rain came down in sheets, nearly sideways at points, and I could already see water starting to pool in the parking lot below.

Maybe it wouldn’t last long, I thought. One of those quick downpours, just enough to get everything wet, and then it would move on.

Just as I thought it, lightning flashed across the sky. Before the line of light had faded from my vision, thunder roared behind it. Seconds later, another flash of lightning, showing the dark grey clouds covering the entire sky.

So much for having a beer on the balcony.

Still, I was stubborn. I took my laptop out of its case and set it up on the kitchen table instead, then grabbed the beer I intended to have. The building was old, so the soundproofing wasn’t exactly the greatest. Thunder rolled and rain pounded; wind howled and lightning flashed. It would fade for a few minutes only to re-invigorate itself, but I managed to ignore it completely as I immersed myself into my sales software.

Three-quarters of my beer was gone when the world went dark.

It was barely after five p.m., but the sky was so clouded over that hardly any light was filtering in through my balcony door. I blinked, momentarily unbalanced, and let my eyes adjust. Aside from my laptop, all the ambient light in my apartment was gone. The clock on the stove was black, the LED on the TV had disappeared, and the hum of my refrigerator had gone quiet.

A power outage.

“Great,” I muttered.

I waited for the backup generator to kick in, but when a few minutes went by and it hadn’t, I strode to the door and looked into the hallway. None of the emergency lights were on there, either, so I had to assume the generator was busted, too.

Sighing, I closed the door. My laptop battery was a third full, so I drained the beer I had, opened the unlit fridge to quickly grab another one, and sat back down at my kitchen table.

Within moments of cracking the new beer, my cell phone rang.

“Hi, Lyla,” I said without looking.

“The power’s out,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“It’s been out for five minutes,” I said. “Wait and see if it comes back on.”

“Thanks, genius. What am I supposed to do while I’m waiting for that to happen?”

“Inventory?”

“In the dark?”

“Get the delivery stuff ready.”

“Computer’s not working.”

I sighed. “I don’t know, Lyla. Sit around and wait for it to come back on.”

“You’re the boss.”

Before I could say anything else, she hung up and I rolled my eyes.

It was a few minutes later when I realized the fatal flaw in my plan to continue working: no güvenilir illegal bahis siteleri power meant no internet, and no internet meant no access to the cloud.

“Fuck!” I whispered when the error message popped up.

The laptop was old, there was no way around that. If the power didn’t come back on soon, it’d likely die before I could get it reconnected, and I’d lose everything I had just done. Annoyed, I took another swig of beer before closing the laptop, then realized just how dark my small apartment was. Apartments aren’t usually known for their abundance of windows in the first place, but I only had a small window in my bedroom in addition to the balcony door.

I didn’t have a flashlight, but I was pretty sure there were some candles in the bathroom that my ex-girlfriend had left there a few years earlier. By the dim flashlight on my phone, I guided myself into the pitch-black bathroom. It was while I was digging through the cupboard trying to find something that smelled like marshmallow sugar cookies that I heard a faint woman’s voice.

“Can anyone hear me?”

I straightened up, frowning. “Hello?”

There was a pause, then someone banged on one of the connecting walls. “Hello?!”

“Who… what?” I asked.

“I need help!” said the voice. “Where are you?”

“Me?” I said. “I’m in my apartment. Where are you?”

“I’m in my apartment.”

I stared at the wall for a moment. “Like, in the same universe as my apartment, or are we talking across the space-time continuum or something?”

“This isn’t funny!” she sobbed.

“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” I said.

“Are you going to help me or what?”

“I don’t know who you are, where you are, how you can hear me, or what you need,” I said stiffly. “So I guess if you want my help, I need to know at least two of those things.”

She was silent for a moment.

“My name is Meg,” she finally said. “I’m in apartment three-twelve. I’m in the shower and everything went dark and I’m scared. I just moved in and I can’t see anything.”

Meg in apartment three-twelve. She was directly below me, so that explained both where she was and why she could hear me through the plumbing.

“Okay,” I said. “Well, you can’t see anything because the power’s out.”

“I figured that much!” she snapped.

I sighed. “Look, if you’re just going to yell at me, I’ll go and—”

“No, no, no!” she cried, and I heard a choked sniffle through the plumbing. “Please. I’m scared of the dark. Don’t laugh at me, I’m just… I’m so scared right now.”

The waver in her voice tugged at my heart and I sighed. “Fine. You want me to come to get you or…?”

“Please,” said Meg. “The code to the door is four-eight-one-two. I just… if you can just bring me a flashlight so I can find mine, that’s all I need. I’m too scared to move.”

I wasn’t reluctant to help because I didn’t like helping people. I was reluctant to help because she was the second person to snap at me that day. Still, that wasn’t exactly Meg’s fault. I couldn’t blame her for being scared and on edge, though if it were me, I would have been a little more polite to the person I was asking for help.

For my own peace of mind, though, not helping her wasn’t an option.

“I’ll be right there,” I promised. “I’m just up the stairs from you. Hold on.”

“Thank you so much,” came the response, both higher-pitched and slightly thicker than before.

I abandoned my search for candles, assuming my phone would be enough to help Meg out. It was all I grabbed before going to the hallway, jogging down the stairs, and heading to apartment three-twelve.

Once I was there, I hesitated, staring at the keypad. It wasn’t that I couldn’t remember the code, but if the power was out…

Carefully, I typed in the number she’d given me and breathed a sigh of relief when the mechanism clicked loudly. It must have had a backup battery, which was good to know. I made a mental note to replace mine when I had a chance.

The door swung open quietly. I waited for a moment, then remembered the power was out so it wasn’t going to get any brighter, and rolled my eyes at my stupidity as I walked in.

“Hello?” I called.

Thunder cracked just as I did and I waited until the roll faded before trying again.

“Meg?”

“In here,” came the small response.

The layout of her apartment was identical to mine, so I knew where “here” was. The dim light of my phone led the way past cardboard boxes and mismatched furniture. She wasn’t exaggerating; from the looks of it, she had literally just moved in, maybe that day or the day before.

Knocking softly, I opened the bathroom door. The flashlight on my phone lit the room up exponentially brighter than it had been, and the shower curtain rustled as a head shyly poked out from behind it.

I didn’t know if many women thought that “interrupted-mid-shower” look worked. On top of that, cell phone flashlights don’t offer the most flattering lighting. güvenilir bahis şirketleri It might have explained why the woman behind the shower curtain looked slightly ashamed, although it also could have been having to call a stranger into her apartment to help her get out of said shower. Either way, all of those handicaps were a good thing because, even in less-than-optimal lighting with a small amount of her face poking out and suds still clinging to her hair, she was the most beautiful woman I’d seen in my entire life.

She was younger than me, maybe in her late twenties. Soaking wet hair clung to the side of her face and her round eyes were almost black in the darkness. Her nose turned up just slightly and her mouth, though tensed with worry, was full and pink. I couldn’t see even a hint of her body behind the shower curtain, but my mind started filling in the blanks without my permission. I felt my face going warm and tore my eyes away guiltily.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Owen.”

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Meg. Um, pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain?”

I chuckled nervously. “I’ll, uh, turn around if you want to get out.”

Without waiting for a response, I angled the phone towards her and turned the other direction. The image of her was seared in my mind, including the parts I couldn’t see, and I tried everything I could to think of something else so my blood stopped rushing to places I didn’t really want it to be.

There was no noise for a moment, then the shower curtain rustled again and the rings made a metallic sound as they slid along the curtain rod. I refused to picture Meg’s glistening body as it stepped over the edge of the tub and onto the mat, absolutely refused to think of it, not when there were things like trying to add up my previous week’s sales numbers that I could be thinking about.

I was trying to do the math in my head when the deep swooping sound of skin sliding on porcelain broke through and Meg cried out.

I turned around instinctively as the shower curtain rustled frantically, stepping across the bathroom just in time to catch her as she yanked the curtain from the rod and tripped forward out of the shower. She wasn’t very heavy, but the angle was awkward and I teetered off-balance. Meg clutched the shower curtain with one hand and my arm with the other as I tried to control my fall, ending up seated on her bathroom floor near the heat register as she tumbled into my lap.

Thank God those math equations had done the trick, otherwise things might have been really uncomfortable.

“Oh my God,” she choked.

She tried to scramble out of my lap, but the shower curtain got caught around her legs and she slipped again. Her knee came dangerously close to an area I definitely didn’t want to be kneed, though I was distracted when she pitched forward and something—well, some things—soft and round and delightfully warm pressed against my shirt.

I refused to think of what those somethings were, given the position of her knee, but she knew I had felt them. Her face turned such a bright shade of red that it was almost glowing in the dim light.

I couldn’t help it; I laughed.

“It’s not funny,” she said indignantly. “It’s not!”

“Okay,” I said, chuckling. “Sure. It’s not.”

“Stop laughing at me,” she said, punctuating it with a sniff.

I did stop laughing when I realized those big eyes were wet, and it wasn’t because she had just fallen out of the shower.

“Hey, I’m sorry,” I said as she blinked rapidly. “Look, it’s just not every day that some girl literally sweeps me off my feet. I’m just counting my blessings.”

She sniffed again, then snorted, a tiny laugh that started undoing all the work that math problem had done.

“Are you okay?” I asked, trying to distract myself.

She nodded but didn’t move off my lap. After a moment, she shook her head and made another soft sniffing sound.

“I’m embarrassed,” she said. “I had to scream through the walls to get your help, and then I was kind of mean to you, and then I had to admit that I’m so scared of the dark I couldn’t even get out of my shower, and then I fell out of the shower and ripped my new shower curtain and I’m just a complete mess.”

There were a few drops of water on her cheeks that hadn’t been there before. I felt bad for her, but I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to hug her, but the only thing separating most of her naked body from me was a thin shower curtain, not to mention I was a complete stranger sitting with her in the dark. She was already embarrassed; I didn’t need to make her uncomfortable, too.

“You’re not a mess,” I said instead. “You just got out of the shower. I’d say you’re probably squeaky clean.”

She made that tiny, snorting laugh again, this time with those full lips flicking up into a little smile. I quickly thought of my sales numbers again.

“C’mon,” I said. “I’d say let me help you up, but you’re kinda… well. Let me, uh, get this part of the curtain…”

As carefully as I could, I helped her untangle the shower curtain, determinedly avoiding looking at her as she unfolded her legs and shimmied awkwardly off my lap while trying to cover herself with the edge of the shower curtain.

“Don’t look,” she pleaded.

I held my hands up to my eyes. “Can’t see a thing.”

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