THEN A PENGUIN WALKED IN #23
As the sound of his scream reverberated around the stone room, Dominick spun, giving the woman a great view of his backside, and snatched the towel from the table with such force that the table fell with a clatter, scattering its contents all over the wet floor. He wrapped the towel around his waist and tried his hand at apologizing.
There was a part of him, an area of his brain that was still able to access its logic circuits in spite of the situation, that knew he shouldn’t have to apologize. She was the one who walked in on him. Yet he couldn’t help himself. Unfortunately, he could only sputter and wheeze.
“I’m sorry sir,” the woman said behind him. “I didn’t mean to walk in on you like that. It’s just that Herbert told me you’d be in the bath.”
She pronounced Herbert like “Erbert”. She also sounded more than a little embarrassed herself. But she’d been smiling. Dominick had noticed that much before he’d turned away from her. She’d been smiling with a wicked sort of glint in her eyes. Her green eyes. Green eyes set perfectly in a porcelain face framed by long black hair. He’d not noticed much else in those few seconds. Only that she was short, well built, and that she’d moved with the natural grace of a dancer.
He’d noticed a lot, in fact, though he wouldn’t be aware of just how much until later.
At the moment, he was a little too involved in the project of not being naked to give anything else much thought.
“Uh,” Dominick finally got out. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I brought you food,” she said. There was something in her voice. A cruel humor that made Dominick’s face grow hot. “Are you hungry?”
“Sure,” replied Dominick with as little quaver as he could muster. But still, he did not turn around. He couldn’t face her. The embarrassment was too much.
“I can leave it here on the table if you’d like.” She practically crooned.
“Sure, yeah. The table is fine.”
He heard her shifting around behind him followed by the sound of a try of food being set gently on a wooden table.
“Would you like me to pick up your things while I’m here?” The woman asked.
When Dominick had first started at the Happy Hamburger so many years ago, Mr. Finkleton had trained him on taking orders using the headset microphone and computer.
“Make sure you smile,” Mr. Finkleton had said. “The customer may not be able to see you, but they surely hear your smile.”
Up until now, Dominick had always felt that the ability to hear a smile was a bunch of crap. Just something bosses told employees. But he could most assuredly hear the smile in the woman’s voice behind him. And unlike how his smile was supposed to help the customers feel more at ease, hers only managed to make him even more uncomfortable.
“No,” he responded. He wanted her out as soon as possible. “That’s not necessary.”
“It’s not a bother,” she said, and he could feel her moving around the room behind. “It won’t take but a moment.”
The moment stretched on to a lifetime as Dominick stood, nearly naked and vulnerable with his back to the woman.
“So,” Dominick said, his voice shaky as he tried to break the tension. “You work here in the palace?”
“All my life,” the woman said. “Started out scrubbing pots in the scullery, and now I do all sorts of fun stuff.”
He didn’t like the way she’d emphasized the word ‘fun’.
“What exactly is a scullery?” Dominick just wanted this to be over.
“It’s where the dishes are washed, of course.”
“Did you enjoy working in the scullery?” Of course she didn’t. Why would she? Scrubbing pots? It sounded horrible, but he didn’t know what else to say.
“It was a job, wasn’t it? Do you enjoy your job?”
“Not really, no.”
“There ya go then,” she said. “Answered your own question, didn’t ya?”
“I guess I did. Look, are you about done back there. I’d like to get dressed.”
“Be my guest,” she said, a laugh in her voice.
Dominick could only sigh but did not move.
“Why do you carry salt with you, are you a cook?” The woman asked.
“Salt?” What was she talking about. “What are you talking about?”
“You have this small barrel here full of salt. And it’s cracked too.”
The salt shaker. It seemed months ago now that he’d contemplated dunking it in the fryer back at the Happy Hamburger. He’d stuck it in his pocket this morning on reflex and now it’s come with him into this new world. That must have been what he’d rolled over back on the battlefield, hence the crack in the plastic.
“I guess I am sort of a cook,” Dominick said. “Though not one that would do anyone any good.”
The woman didn’t respond to that. Instead she continued to move about behind him.
“That’s that, then,” she said at last. “Food’s on the table, enjoy.”
And with that, she left.
To be continued . . .