Leigh had instructed him to meet her outside of the library. He paced around a bench, looking at photos she had sent to keep his nerve. But would she have a cartoonish voice? Would their ease in texting continue in person? Would she look like these pictures? The latter not terribly important, Cody told himself, but he’d been staring at them for weeks; he needed them to be real.

He spotted her buzzed head and sinewy figure from blocks away, shaded on one side by a row of maple trees. Leigh’s pale-orange dress fell loosely down her body. Elaborate black ink traveled up her legs, down her arms, and crawled toward her neck. The ominous head of a doll poked out of the purse bouncing at her side.

She didn’t acknowledge seeing him, looking toward him, then through him. Cody pretended to see something interesting on the sidewalk, but there was nothing more interesting than her. When she stopped two benches over to adjust her insulin pump, he had to stop himself from calling out.

“You look like you,” she said on approach.

“Almost every day.”

She smiled, nodding her head as if he had said the correct answer to a question she hadn’t asked.

“Would you like to sit down, or go on a walk or—” She shook her head ‘no’ throughout Cody’s question. “Well I am happy to just sit here and admire you.”

“You’re sweet.”

Cody’s smile wilted. Of course she wouldn’t want sweet. She turned again to the slit in her dress. “I need to fix my pump.”

“Oh. Okay,” he said, fearing the date had already ended.

She ignored his disappointment. “Let’s go back to my place. It’s around the corner. I instructed you to call me Miss Leigh, yes?”

“Yes, Miss Leigh.”

“Today I will go light. Your safeword will be apple—it’s the easiest to say when gagged.”

* * *

Cody had never kneeled for a woman before, his knees soon aching. Leigh had placed him in her bedroom, departing without a word. Her bed held a mound of pillows with the doll she’d carried tossed on top, its hair also cropped short. He smiled at the story collection he’d sent her sitting open on her nightstand, several sections underlined in pencil. Leigh had never let on that she’d read it, and he’d felt silly for sending it; that was a gift for a girlfriend.

At the clacking of Leigh’s heels, Cody straightened up. She crossed in front of him. Her strappy teddy revealed gothic trees, inky branches and roots stretching across her skin, ravens screeching over her chest. He could smell the heat from images that he’d admired on his phone for weeks. And on her thigh was the leather pouch he’d made for her insulin pump.

Leigh blindfolded him, and in the darkness she felt nearer. She took his hands firmly into hers, standing him up.

Nervous, he said, “So many pillows. And why a doll, Miss Leigh?”

“You need not concern yourself with my bed.” Then, breaking character, “That’s Agnes, a diabetes training doll I’ve had forever. She safeguards my sugar tablets and insulin supplies.

“It’s time, boy,” she continued.

Leigh led him out of her bedroom, around corners, and down the narrow basement steps. When unsure of his footing, Cody squeezed her hand. She squeezed back, and they proceeded at his pace.

Lavender candles burned in her warm dungeon. Where she commanded him to stop, a plush rug sprung up between his toes. Cody stood naked and silent as she wove the pink rope around his flexed muscles, feeling coarse only when she pulled it taught. When she finished his wrists and ankles he did not feel trapped, but secure.

She ran a whip down his back. His skin rose to meet the leather. With the first few strikes, she subdued his concerns about articles and deadlines from that week. After an hour, nothing beyond them existed.

When Leigh’s strikes slowed, he asked for more. She rested against his shoulders, her skin against his for the first time, and as close as he’d get to hold her, he thought.

Leigh stepped back and raised the whip once more when a beeping arose. She exhaled and let out a whimper. The whip fell at his feet followed by the thud of her body.

Cody’s eyes sprung open to the black of the blindfold. He twisted against the ropes and had to hop to turn around. He glimpsed Leigh at the edge of the blindfold, collapsed on the floor, conscious but shaking. He shouted her name as he fought with the ropes, tripping and falling by her side.

He held his breath and relaxed his muscles to produce slack in the rope, allowing him to wiggle it up to his shoulders. Cody bit at the ends around his wrists until they came loose. He found the source of the beeping to be an alert on her pump: “Low Glucose: 55” in neon red.

Cody sprinted up the stairs, but took the first wrong turn. He burst through every door until he found her bedroom, scooping up his pants and feeling at the pockets. No phone. He’d left it in his car per her instructions.

Scanning the room, he found only her empty charger. Cody thought to run half-naked to the neighbor’s for help when he spotted Agnes. He yanked the doll from the bed and ran back to Leigh.

Cody cradled Leigh in his lap as the sugar tablet dissolved on her tongue. She jerked from her stupor out of breath. Once her eyes found Cody she smiled. She took the pack of tablets from his hand and pointed to the flavor on the label. With a wry smile she said, “Apple.”

He let out an exasperated laugh, stopping only when Leigh took his hand into hers. She interlocked their fingers, binding him to her once more. They rested like that awhile, feeling safe.