It’s 6:30 in the morning and I’m pressed and neat, hair combed back and pinned up, not a strand out of place. I’m driving a car commonly referred to as “sporty”, bought secondhand from a grinning salesman who looked at us and painted his thoughts all over his face. It’s a two-door coupe, and it cuts smoothly in and out of the early morning traffic before I hang a left in the middle of the block and pull through the Starbucks drive-through, pick up an Americano and a pastry that definitely isn’t on anyone’s diet, and head back into traffic.
I set the cup in the holder as I swing back into place, but it tilts alarmingly, threatening to spill. Steadying it with two fingers on my gearshift hand, I take a right at the flashers and head up the onramp. I’m on the freeway at the head of rush hour before I settle into sixth gear and take my hand off the shifter, reaching for the cup. I take a sip and burn my tongue, transfer it to my wheel hand and reach down to see what’s fallen into the cup holder.
My fingers close around something cold and woven, and I feel a shock of recognition as I lift it out. The flash of streetlights strobes off the silver loop that’s burning an ice-cold circle on my palm; the beads strung along the braided leather cord disguising the collar only superficially. The clasp ratchets closed, and there’s a little keyhole just in case I had any doubts.
I’m already driving with three fingers and a cup of scorching hot Americano; I don’t have free hands to do what the collar demands I do, and demands right now. I can hear your voice in my ears, silken, unyielding. “Do you want to be safe?” I know I don’t. I know that safe is not what this is about.
I shift the cup from one hand to the other, set it back in the cup holder where it sits vertically now, nothing else blocking it. My hand is shaking just a bit; the coffee laps at the sipping lid and splashes as I set it down. I set the cruise with a tap, ten miles over the speed limit, and take my feet off the pedals to brace my knees on the steering wheel. It’s a long straight stretch and the alignment on the coupe is good.
The beads catch the flashing lights as I pass another exit, jasper and tourmaline and chrysoprase glints, abstract patterns of color around the central silver ring. Silver threads wind through the leather braids, glittering. Strengthening. The latch ratchets shut with a series of tiny metallic clicks, and I tug on it, already knowing it’s solid. Secure. For a moment the collar is too tight, and I can’t breathe, suppressing the urge to claw at it until the instinctive panic subsides.
It’s snug, just tight enough that I won’t be able to forget I’m wearing it even if I tried, and the beads are cold as they dig subtly into my neck, drawing heat from my skin and warming slowly as I lower my hands back to the wheel and try to focus on the taillights cutting into my lane right in front of me.
It’s seven when I pull into the parking lot, find my spot, stand staring at the front doors while the wind chills the ring where it rests against the hollow of my throat. I can feel my pulse beating against it, fast, distracted. It’s exactly what you must have wanted. I take a deep breath, walk in, make a smile for the clerk at the front desk. I get a wave and a “Morning, boss.”
“Morning,” I manage, but I can’t remember his name, so I keep walking. I never knew leather and glass could be so heavy. There are papers waiting for me in my office. Decisions to make. Rules to enforce.
I can’t think about anything but you.