THE lavender phantom

Chapter 1

It is bliss. The rope around my neck tightens, hitching my breath and making my eyelids slip down. I embrace the darkness and the throbbing pain under every single strand wrapped around my body.

In this split second, there’s a lot to process. A lot of rope, a lot of pain, a lot of slippery feelings. A lot of people’s gazes—some I choose to ignore, some to embrace.

I whimper as a shake starts somewhere deep within me and then spreads out to my limbs. My shin presses into my right thigh. It quivers with the effort to support my body in the shape compelled by the rope. My chest dips close to the ground, held in place by another piece of rope connected somewhere above me. A stray lock of my long blonde hair touches the floor as I sway gently with my efforts.

I start to slip into a familiar darkness, my heartbeat audible in my skull. Short, staccato breaths escape my lips as the air around is barred proper entry into my lungs.

The neck rope slackens and slides to the ground. I inhale, deep and soothing, and strain against the hold around my chest. The ropes dig into my ribs deliciously, embracing me with their intimate tightness, forcing me to look within myself and face the darkness there. Face the seedling of doubt that I’ve not quite got the adult thing together yet. That, at twenty-four, I’m still an orphan with too much responsibility to bear.

A cane connects to the inside of my other thigh, biting into my naked skin, threatening to send me off balance. I hiss, then still. The pain takes me away from that dangerous place, and I zone my attention in on it, thankful.

My left leg extends up, held in place by two ropes. I’m exposed, but I don’t mind. In fact, I let my eyelids drift up a bit and steal a look at the crowd gathered to watch. I see bare feet and stilettos, brogues and oxfords. No sneakers. Never sneakers.

My previous aches and pains from the day have evaporated, allowing me to focus on this one moment, waiting for the next hit to mark my skin. My mind empties, and I reach towards my joyous place. My eyes close again because I want to feel everything. I’m afraid I would miss some sweet, complicated feeling if I focus on something else.

A volley of cane flicks descends upon me. I bite my lip, trying to silence the small whining that has started at the back of my throat. Then I give up and let my voice out.

I squeeze my hands into fists, enduring the pain from my binds and the assault on my leg. My wrists are tied behind my back, leaving me unable to do anything but accept whatever comes my way.

As many times before, I submit to this familiar helplessness, embrace the structure it gives to my unquiet mind, accept the pain and blanket myself with it, preoccupied with the sensation. In a world where everything is loud and demanding, I put those stresses aside and concentrate on the here and now.

I pant with exertion, the eyes on me long forgotten. There is just me and the cane, in a conversation of pain-bringing harmony. It tells an erotic story with each sting on my skin, and I listen. I listen until it is too much and I let my body go limp in the ropes, giving up on my side of the exchange.

In that moment, I am no one. Not Sophie Taylor, not a respectable adult, not a woman. Just a body with tingling skin stretched, a heap of sweet surrender. There is silence now. Once I have gone limp, the blows stop. It seems the whole world has stopped when they start up again, a hand reaching down to catch a fistful of my hair.

Behind the cane, there is a person. This time it’s a man. I can’t remember his name. I can barely remember my own. I groan as our eyes meet.

“Enough?” His question is soft, for my ears only. His voice jump-starts my memory. A new guy. Connor.

Like the flip of a switch, I’m suddenly cold and overwhelmed, and shake in response. “Yes,” I whisper.

Connor plants a kiss on my forehead, its gentleness in stark contrast with every signal of pain my body is receiving. He gets up and starts untying me, one rope at a time; slowly, safely, letting me process the transition from partial suspension to being a soft body on the floor.

I connect to my breathing, taking deep, comforting breaths, letting the oxygen caress my every cell. As the ropes come off, my skin burns with their marks. The cold leaves me, but the shakes remain.

Connor drapes a blanket over my shoulders and presses a bottle of water to my lips. I take two brave gulps, then shake my head. He embraces me tightly. I whisper “Thank you” and bury my head in his chest.

We stay like that for a minute or two. Having enjoyed the rope scene, I’m taking the time to come down from that intensity, to reestablish myself as part of the world of walking, thinking humans. I don’t need much aftercare, but a blanket and a bear hug are essential.

As my senses return, I look around, my eyes curious to discover the state of the room. A small crowd is still gathered, quiet spectators sharing drinks and hugs. I see my friend Hanako with one of her occasional play partners. She waves at me; I wink at her and turn to Connor.

“I enjoyed this, thanks again,” I say. It is the first time we have tied together. He listened well to my words before we’d started our session—my limits, my wishes for what I wanted to experience, and his as well. He’d taken care to stay within the boundaries while still pushing my body to the brink of what it could take.

He is beaming. Sweating, his cheeks flushed with red, his hands shaky as he collects his ropes and starts coiling them. New to the Moon Garden, he wanted to do a session with me, a rope switch veteran, and establish himself as a trustworthy rigger. I hadn’t expected much, but the scene was a pleasant surprise, and I run my fingers across my rope marks, enjoying the feel and shape of them, committing the whole event to memory.

“It was great to work with you.” He gives me another squeeze.

“Do you want help getting your ropes in order?” I ask, looking at the pool of rope we are sitting in. He shakes his head. I nod and get up.

“I’ll go freshen up.” I pat his shoulder. I don’t like to linger after scenes and make small talk. The ultimate goal of why we had converged is over, and the desire to go somewhere else and continue with my night rises like a tide inside me.

“Alright,” he replies. “I didn’t break skin as you requested so you should be fine.”

I nod. “It will bruise beautifully, though. Thank you for your hard work. I’ll have only good things to say when people ask me about you.”

He chuckles, shaking his head. I can see myself tying with him again if he wants to, but our meeting for today is done. I put on a satin dressing gown to cover myself and head for the locker room. On the way, I catch Hana’s wrist.

“Come with me?” I say with a dip of my head to greet her partner for the night. He nods his approval. She skips behind me, her small dress lifting with each jump, flashing everyone.

My relationship with Hanako is unlike the one I have with Connor. For one, I’ve known her since I joined the Moon Garden a few years ago. I don’t mind small talk with her. Her contagious good mood recharges me and soothes my soul like cold milk on hot skin.

Second, I’m not only her friend but her rope top. On the days I feel confident and dominant, I cover her in rope and make her suffer the way she craves. On all other days, we talk about food, pop stuff, and Moon Garden gossip.

 She is slightly shorter than me and thinner. A cute Asian girl who, at twenty-seven, looks anywhere between twenty and forty. Part of that is the excellent care she takes of her skin and hair, but another part is that nature has favored her with a pretty face and a small nose, full lips and soft jawline. Her eyes are a shade lighter than mine, brown but warm and streaked with yellow specks.

“That looked nice,” she says as we enter the changing area. I need a quick shower to get rid of the sweat making my dressing gown stick to my body.

“I enjoyed it. He definitely pushed me. I was blissed out.” I unlock my locker and pull out my phone. No messages from Melanie. She was supposed to drop me one when she got back home.

“Watch out for sub drop. I hate it when all the brain chemicals start to equalize and I go from being ecstatic to depressed.”

“I know, Hana, don’t worry. I don’t usually have it very bad. Have you done anything interesting yet tonight?” I close the Messaging app and open up Instagram. I find Melanie’s profile and tap on the latest picture. It’s a stray dog, its fur a mix of dark yellow blond and splotches of black, eating out of a discarded Frenzy Eats box. Probably enjoying some chicken bones.

“Not yet, we’ve just been hanging around talking to people. We’ll find a private room in a bit,” Hana says and heads towards her own locker. “I want to check my phone though, to make sure I have no urgent appointments for tomorrow. Maybe I can have a late night and sleep in.”

It is nice to chat about nothing. Comfortable.

I pick up my phone and stare at the dog photo. Melanie loves dogs. The post was made five hours ago. She was supposed to have come home or been in touch by now, but when I left, our apartment was still empty.

It is unusual for her not to be in contact, but teenagers can be volatile, right?

Something doesn’t sit well with me. A gut feeling that I want to ignore but can’t. I switch back to Messaging.

Did you get home all right?

Placing my phone back in my locker, I start peeling the gown off my damp skin.

“Oh fuck,” I hear Hana say as she rummages in the tiny purse attached to her tiny dress.

“Can’t find your key?”

“No, I must have dropped it somewhere. You know this is the third time,” she huffs. “Another ten dollars down the drain…”

I narrow my eyes and examine my locker’s mechanism. “I can save you the money, I think. Let me try opening it. You will still have to sneak out after, pretending not to have taken a key though,” I say with a smile. Moon Garden lost key penalty rules are extortionate.

“Really?”

“Give me two of your bobby pins.” I put my gown back on. A conspiratorial smile blossoms on my lips without being invited.

It has been a while since I’ve picked a lock. I hope it is like riding a bike. I bend the bobby pins to resemble a lockpick, then insert one to act as the tension wrench and started picking the pins with the other. I empty my mind, silencing the voice which reminds me of how I had gained my skills and why I had stopped picking locks.

As I advance on the lock, I fight with the urge to look at Hana. Is she impressed? Bored? Is she looking at me at all? I reach the last pin and turn the lock. It clicks open with a soft sound. I smile victoriously.

Letting the door swing open, I take Hana’s phone and hand it to her with a bow. “Your phone, my princess,” I say jokingly.

“You opened it so quickly,” she says in awe. “Where did you learn that?”

“Ah, just watching a YouTube video.” Not really. On the streets of a city I have long since put behind me.

“Really? How come?”

“A party trick. To entertain.” A skill I was instantly good at. To belong when I was figuring out who I was.

“I’m amazed, Sophie Taylor. I bet you could crack a safe like that. Have you tried?”

“No, that would be criminal,” I say with a wink. But the answer is yes. And it was criminal. Just a bit.

“Awesome,” Hana concludes as she scrolls through her phone. I stuff my dressing gown in my locker, press it shut, and go to shower.

“Have fun out there,” I shout over the sound of water.

“You know I will,” Hana shouts back. “See you later.”

I scrub my body, alone with my thoughts. I’m not a criminal. In fact, I’m meek and responsible. But as everyone else, I have a past. I remember it rarely, because its contents don’t fit my current lifestyle. My lockpicking days are behind me, and so are the days when I went looking for trouble.

My new normal is different, and that’s fine. It is to be expected of a twenty-four-year-old who looks after her fourteen-year-old sister. Life changes when you get parenting responsibilities.

After I’ve inhaled enough steam, I come out warm and tired. It is time to head home. As I put my jeans and t-shirt on, I check my phone.

Don’t w8 up not gonna b bck tonight. 🙂

What the hell? My eyes narrow as my fingers tickle with the need to respond with something harsh and end it with her full name and an exclamation point. But I love Melanie. I don’t want to snap at her or be the super overprotective parent. She’s the only reason I am who I am today.

Ok. Who are you with?

A sleepover is fine. I will just have a word with her tomorrow. I’m exhausted. My phone buzzes, and I’m proud of her for responding so quickly.

One job. Twenty thousand dollars. Reply YES to confirm.

It isn’t Melanie. I huff as I delete the message, sent from an unknown number for an unknown purpose. Probably spam like all the ones I’ve been getting in the past few weeks. Phishing. The messages were about dating, bank accounts, new products—anything and everything. I should change my number.

I go back to the chat with Melanie. The message has been delivered. I try to remember what I was like around the same age as I wait for a reply. The memories aren’t pretty. Kids can go wrong in so many ways these days. I detest my teenage self. She ran and rebelled, ignoring her loving parents, saying no because it felt so good to be in opposition. To be her own person. Not a child, not someone’s daughter and sister. And for many, that ends up okay. But not for me.

Memories of that rainy night resurface, and I press my hands to my eyes, compressing my eyeballs, willing the images to disappear.

Melanie is not like the other kids. She’s not like me, thankfully. She is good and honest. She is hard-working and bright. She has her head on straight.

Simon. gtg.

That’s okay, then. I have Simon’s phone number and know where he lives. And he is gay, so no danger for Melanie. Well, not from Simon anyway. If she is drinking, I hope she’s being responsible.

Teenagers. So difficult to manage.

I wave to a couple of people on the way out, leaving the key to my locker at the bar. The barmaid nods at me with a tranquil smile. Working at the Moon Garden must be so nice. Fetish clubs are such glorious fun.

Outside, I inhale the crisp, chilly Chicago air. Despite the calendar creeping towards spring, it’s definitely still winter.

I should call Melanie back home. But tonight was a good night and my limbs are heavy with the need to sleep. When did Melanie grow up so much?

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