I met Erik completely by chance. I was eighteen, my parents had just died a month prior, and I was utterly lost. The rest of my family wanted nothing to do with me, my dream of becoming a reporter was gone, and, without a source of income, the apartment I had managed to rent would soon be taken from me.

I considered panhandling, if only for a short time, but couldn't stomach the idea. I tried each and every day to find a job, but nothing went through. Interviewers kept saying they'd be in contact, yet no one called back. I tried getting a job at a shoe store, bowling alley, and library, but no. I tried to find work as a waitress or a receptionist. Those didn't pan out, either.

Finally, a kind elderly couple took pity on me when I went in to their grocery store one afternoon. I asked if they were looking for a new employee. The husband - his name was Jim - said no, but his wife - her name was Millie - pulled him to the side and had a conversation with him, away from my ears.

They came back ten minutes later. Millie was smiling as Jim offered me a job as a checkout clerk and grocery bagger. I, of course, accepted.

It didn't pay much, but it was enough to keep me from losing the apartment, and I became friends with Millie and Jim. There was a problem, however. Millie was sick, the grocery store wasn't turning enough of a profit, and the two were forced to close the place down just a few months after I had gotten the job.

After my last day of work, I went home, threw away the apron that served as my uniform, and sat on the couch, looking around at the apartment that would soon be taken from me. I had canceled the cable package a few weeks before, hoping to save a little money, so I didn't even have shitty TV to take my mind off of things.

I couldn't help but think that what had happened to my life just wasn't fair. I grew up in a nice house with a loving family. I was raised by good people, who turned me into a good person. I was supposed to go to school. I was supposed to be a reporter. I was supposed to have a life that was more than just desperately living paycheck-to-paycheck, only for the few things I did have to be taken away from me.

Looking back on it now, I guess you could say I was depressed, and I suppose I had good reason to be. I went into the kitchen and grabbed a knife out of the drawer. The edge was sharp and serrated, and the handle was plastic and black with a little sliver running through it. It came from a relatively cheap cutlery set I had purchased from a yard sale after I realized I had no silverware. I used this particular knife to cut fruits and vegetables for meals - day-old food from the grocery store where I no longer worked.

It was raining outside - had been for a couple days. The water was starting to pool in front of my door, and I'd had to set towels down to keep it from soaking the floor and completely ruining the already-dirty carpet.

I tested the sharpness of the knife with my fingers, poking into the pad of my thumb without actually trying to break the skin. The tip sank into my flesh easily and brought up a fat drop of blood. This would work.

I left my apartment, closed the door behind me, and wandered over to the side of the building. I did my best to keep anyone walking by from seeing me - a young woman holding a knife in a short-sleeved shirt during a rainstorm was bound to ring some alarm bells in people's minds.

As I held the knife to my left wrist, I questioned if this really needed to be done. If I just tried a little harder, maybe I could find a job. Maybe I could keep my apartment. Maybe I could find some friends. And maybe - just maybe - I would wake up in the morning with some sort of epiphany, and I would suddenly discover a reason to live.

But that was just wishful thinking, I knew. Tomorrow would come, and it would bring with it nothing but stress, sadness, loneliness, fear, and anxiety. Nothing was going to change. Nothing was going to get better. I had a way out, and this was it.

Before I could turn it over any more in my mind, I slid the knife downwards along my skin, starting at the veins in my wrist.

I would be lying if I said it didn't hurt, but to be honest, the physical agony wasn't that much worse than the emotional agony I had been feeling. With this in mind, I moved on to my other arm, giving it the same treatment, doing my best not to hesitate.

My skin split beneath the knife like butter, or, as my father would have said, like Moses parting the Red Sea. It was oddly mesmerizing, watching the blood painting my pale skin. The blood tried to clot, but not only were the wounds too deep, the rain helped it to keep flowing outwards, as well. It occurred to me - vaguely - that it probably would have been a better idea to do this in a warm bath, as it would have quickened the process, but the thought drifted away before I could really get a grasp on it, and was gone from my head.

My body was getting cold, though I didn't know if it was from the rain, the blood loss, or both. I tried to lift up an arm, but couldn't gather enough strength. The knife fell from my hand, hitting the concrete with a clatter.

I was able to keep my eyes open for ten - or maybe fifteen - minutes before the blood loss started to take its toll, my head fell back against the brick wall, and my eyes drooped shut.

I awoke in a hospital bed. I felt like I could just barely remember someone shaking my shoulder, trying to rouse me, but I didn't know if it was real or not, nor did I know where it had taken place if it was real.

There were monitors beeping around me, and when I looked at my arms, they were covered in a thick, white gauze. There were pillows behind my head, and the room smelled like medicine and cleaning products. My arms hurt like hell, but I could only assume that that was to be expected. My memories of the hospital stay are hazy to this day. I felt a mixture of disappointment and relief at finding myself still alive. I had gone through all this trouble just to fail, and now, I realized suddenly, I also had a hospital bill to pay. Damn it.

I got my first (and only) visitor on my third day in the hospital - the day I was told I was no longer considered an immediate danger to myself and could (had to) leave. The man who came in to the room was no one I had ever seen before. He had short blonde hair and a goatee that, if I'm being honest, made him look a little skeevy. He almost reminded me of a car salesman. His shoes were shined, and I heard them hitting the floor outside my room before I actually saw who owned them, the steps echoing in a manner not dissimilar to high heels.

It turned out this man - named Erik - was the one who had found me and brought me to the hospital. I remember telling him "thank you", but I'm not sure if I sounded sincere.

He already knew my name, thanks to the fact that my ID had been in my pocket, and when I mentioned the cost of my bill to a nurse later, she said my "father" already paid it. It was obvious she was speaking of Erik, and I wasn't about to correct her.

My plan upon leaving the hospital was to take a bus back to my apartment, and figure out what to do from there. Erik was having none of that. He had a nurse bring me outside in a wheelchair, and got me into his car. I remember it smelling strongly of cologne, but it may have just been a brand of air freshener, because he didn't smell the same.

I was nervous about how this man was treating me. He had saved my life, paid my hospital bill, and now he was driving me home. He could ask for any number of things in return, the least frightening of which being money that I didn't have.

We drove in silence for what I estimated to be about a half a dozen miles before I finally found the courage to speak up.

"Um, excuse me," I said, "I'm sorry to ask this, but what exactly is it you expect me to do to pay you back?"

Erik glanced over at me, looking genuinely confused.

"What do you mean?"

I wasn't sure how to put it, and I stumbled over my words.

"Well, I, um, I don't have any money. Like, none. And I can't pay you back any time soon. So what do I need to do?"

He still appeared confused for a moment, but then it hit him, and his confusion turned almost to disgust.

"Oh, God, no, Andrea. I would never ask you to do something like that. I just saw someone in need and helped out. Anyone could have come by - I was just the first."

He seemed sincere, but I was still nervous.

"You paid my hospital bill," I pointed out. "You have to be expecting something in return."

He didn't take his eyes off the road.

"I'm not. I really did just want to help."

When he got to my apartment, he stopped me before I could get out of his car.

"Andrea," he spoke, looking at me now, "if it's alright, I'd like to come and visit every once in a while. Just to make sure nothing like this" his eyes flicked toward one of my bandaged arms "happens again."

Great. This man was being so sweet, and now I had to tell him I was such a screw-up, I couldn't even afford to stay in a cheap apartment.

"About that. . ." I began, "I probably won't be in this apartment too much longer." I didn't tell him that I was already supposed to be gone.

"Why is that?" he asked.

"I'm a little behind on rent." That seemed like the simplest - and least embarrassing - way to explain it.

"Your job doesn't pay well?" Something about Erik made me think of a father, and I wondered if he had any children at home. He was being nice, and I figured he at least deserved the truth.

"I actually lost my job." I looked down at my shoes while saying this. "I worked at a store, but its closed down."

"Have you found another line of work yet?"

"I've been trying, but nothing's worked out." I felt my cheeks burn red as I admitted this.

Erik didn't speak for a long time. I kept telling myself to just get out of the car, go into the apartment while I still could, get a little sleep, and start over again tomorrow, but I didn't. Thinking back on it, I was a little scared to be alone without first making some sort of change. If I couldn't, trying once more to kill myself would just sound more and more like a reasonable idea.

"I might be able to help you with that," Erik finally spoke, "but keep in mind, the job I'm offering could be something you'll object to."

As Erik explained where he worked, I could feel my eyes bugging out of their sockets. It wasn't what I had been expecting. I knew S&M clubs existed, of course, but that was the extent of the thoughts I'd had about them, and I had certainly never been in one. I pictured a strip club at first, and when I brought this up to Erik, he almost sounded angry with me, and defended his place of business vehemently. I got the feeling he had had this same conversation with others, many times.

But it wasn't like I had a lot of options.

"What would I have to do?" I asked, trying to keep myself from sounding as nervous as I felt.

"Nothing like what I'm sure you're imagining," said Erik with a little chuckle. "I was thinking you could clean the place. We don't exactly have a janitor. And who knows - maybe you'll like it there. You will need to do one thing, though."

"What's that?"

"You'll need to come up with an alias."

Erik visited my apartment every day for a week and a half before finally driving me to the club. (I told him I would drive myself, but I think he wanted to show me where it was, rather than just giving me the directions.)

"Have you thought of an alias?" he asked me while we were at a stoplight. "It's better if you don't tell anyone your real name during introductions."

Instead of giving Erik an answer, I asked my own question.

"Why is that?"

Erik sucked air through his teeth, making a hissing noise.

"No one uses their real names," he said finally. "In fact, your name is the only real one I know."

"Does that mean your name isn't 'Erik'?"

He shook his head in response, and the car started moving again as the light turned green.

"So what is your name?"

"I'm not telling you that, Andrea." His voice was serious, but he smiled just a little, softening the words.

I had thought of a name. I spent the night before on the Internet, searching for a good one. I looked through baby name websites for almost two hours before finally coming to one I liked - Ciera. It was a name that came from the Irish people, and it seemed appropriate. A way to honor my family, even while doing something less than honorable.

Erik's eyes seemed to light up when I told him the name I'd picked.

"That's a good one. It's Irish, right?" He kept speaking before I could say yes. "Our bartender is Irish. His name's Jack. I think you'll like him."

"His name isn't actually 'Jack', is it?" I just wanted to be sure.

"No, it's not."

We drove in silence for a while, and I lost myself in my thoughts. I had been doing my best to take care of the wounds on my arms, wrapping them in plastic when I took showers, since I couldn't get the stitches wet. Each time I washed up, the thought came to me that I could easily pull off my bandages, cut through the stitches, bleed out, and die the way I wanted to. But I didn't do it. Erik had helped me, and found me a job. Offing myself after that would seem, well, rude. It was a silly thought to have, but it kept the suicidal thoughts at bay - for the present time, at least - so I clung to it like a life raft.

I knew my wounds were going to scar, badly, and it was embarrassing to imagine people seeing them. The rain from several days ago had stopped, and the air was heating up, but I wore a jacket, anyway. I would have to take it off eventually, though, and I was dreading it.

"Thinking about something, Ciera?" It took me a minute to realize Erik was talking to me. This "new name" thing was going to take some getting used to.

"Yeah. . ." I felt ashamed to talk about it, but I forced myself to speak, anyway. The fact that Erik wasn't looking at me made it a little easier. "I don't want your employees to see my. . . you know. . . arms."

"I figured that," he said, "and I got you something. It's under your seat."

I reached under the seat, my hand closing around a box. When I pulled it out, I saw that it was white and made of cardboard, like the boxes you got when buying outfits at the mall. In the box was a pair of green silk gloves, and they looked long enough to come up to my elbows.

"I thought the green would work with your hair color," said Erik. He sounded unsure, though, like men often did when buying clothes for women. "If you like them," he continued as I pulled one of the gloves from the box, "I can tell you where I bought them, so you can get more."

I turned in my seat as best I could (the seat belt was keeping me in place) before pulling up one sleeve, not wanting Erik to see my bandages. I knew he had already seen not only the bandages, but also the mess under them, but it still felt wrong to show them off.

I pulled on a glove and wiggled my fingers, testing the feel. I was right - it was silk, and it felt pleasant, for lack of a better word. A nice change from the pain of the wounds themselves. I pulled on the second glove, then turned forward once more. Erik gave me a glance.

"Looks nice," he said.

I didn't know it at the time, but those gloves - as well as the other pairs I eventually wound up buying - would become something of a trademark for me. I always wore them in public. Always. And Erik never saw my arms again.

The building Erik pulled up in front of looked surprisingly industrial - gray brick, metal windows. There were no signs anywhere, and it made me wonder how people found the place, or even knew what it was. The inside, however, was completely different. The walls alternated between red and gray paint. The flooring was a gorgeous dark wood, shinier than it probably should have been, since I imagined this area, being an entrance, got a lot of foot traffic.

Erik led me to a place that looked like a bar. I guessed that this was where "Jack" worked, but there was no one in the room.

"Everyone's probably taking a break," Erik said. "I'll go get them."

While Erik was gone, I took the time to look around the bar. The lighting was dimmer in here than it was in the entrance Erik had led me through, and the walls changed from being painted, to being made of the same dark wood as the floor. It was strangely calming, and I needed that sense of calm, nervous as I was about the idea of meeting Erik's other employees.

He came back before I was ready, three other people standing behind him - two men and one woman.

"Ciera", he said, "these are your coworkers." He pointed to each person in turn as they told me their names and the jobs they did. One was a large, African-American man with forearms bigger than my head. His name was "Darryl", and he was essentially a bouncer.

The second man had short brown hair and a kind smile. When he told me his name - "Jack", the bartender - his accent screamed "Irishman", just as Erik had said.

The only other woman - besides myself - was Johann. She had the rough voice of a long-time smoker, and strangely, maroon-colored hair. Obviously a dye job.

"You'll be acting as a janitor," Erik said to me, then touched a hand to Johann's shoulder, "but I want you to do what Johann says. I think you might be good at her job, eventually, and I'm sure she'd like someone to take some of the workload off of her. What do you think, Jo?"

"Sounds fine to me," she rasped out. The way she spoke was a little sexy, I had to admit, gravelly as it was. She nodded in my direction. "Nice to meet you, Ciera."

"You, too."

"Jack," Erik said to the bartender, "why don't you pour everyone a round? Ciera," he turned to me. "What do you drink?"

"Uh, wine, mostly." I wasn't much of a drinker, and I figured that wouldn't go over well with this group. I was right. The room got so quiet, you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was looking at me. Darryl only blinked. Jack appeared almost disgusted.

"Get her a shot of tequila," Erik finally spoke.

"I don't really drink-" I began, wanting to tell them that I wasn't twenty-one, but Johann moved towards me and cut me off, saying quietly into my ear, "Trust me, honey, you're gonna need the tequila." Her breath near my face smelled like smoke, with an underlying hint of mint, as if she'd been chewing gum.

Jack poured the drink and handed it to Erik, who passed it to me. Unsure, I moved the glass to my mouth and sipped. I could feel a small chip on the rim of the glass against the skin of my lips.

"Oh, no, sweetie." Johann stopped me and motioned for Jack to pour her a drink. When he did, she took it and, keeping her eyes on mine, downed the shot in one gulp. "Like that." It didn't seem possible, but the liquor made her voice sound even harsher.

I followed her lead, trying not to make a face at the taste. I failed.

"Not your kind of drink?" Erik asked. "Jack, get her some gin."

I protested, but no one listened, and I found myself taking back the same glass - this time filled with gin. It went down smoother, I had to admit, but I didn't know if it was because of the alcohol itself, or if I was just a lightweight.

"It gets easier," Johann promised. I didn't reply, keeping the fact that that could be considered a bad thing to myself.

As everyone finished their drinks, I had to fight to keep from casting my eyes to the floor out of anxiety. It was obvious everyone here had their place, and I didn't want to disrupt that balance, but I was no position to be turning down a job, no matter if it made me nervous or not. I wished I was still working for Jim and Millie - at least I knew what was expected of me then. But there was no point in dwelling on the past.

Darryl motioned for Jack to pour him another drink before speaking.

"So, Ciera," he asked, "you got yourself a boyfriend?"

I had always hated that question. It wasn't that I had anything to hide, but something about being asked outright always bugged me.

"No," I said, trying not to sound short, "I don't."

We drank for a good fifteen minutes, Erik, Darryl and Jack getting lost in a discussion about basketball, or some other sports-related nonsense I had never cared about.

Johann finished what was to be her final drink, turned to look at me, and said,

"Why don't I show you around?"

I expected her to take me to the restrooms that I assumed I would be cleaning, but instead, she led me down a dim hallway with doors on either side.

"This is where I work," she motioned towards the doors, "and where you'll be working eventually."

I opened my mouth to speak, but she cut me off.

"You're a lesbian, right?"

That was a surprise. People didn't usually figure that out until they had known me for a while. I considered lying, but couldn't see the point.

"I am. Are you?"

Johann smiled, then leaned forward. It surprised me more than it probably should have when her lips touched mine. Her tongue slid its way into my mouth, and I could taste smoke and alcohol. After a moment, she pulled back.

"No." She gave a slight laugh, probably finding humor in how wide my eyes had become. "I'm not."