Snare drum brushstrokes and muted brass from the New Orleans jazz band at the front of the packed-out banquet hall carries to the rear kitchen without losing volume or tone. The blood-alcohol content of the crowd is the only thing higher than the tempo. A score of waiters in crisp white coats ride waves of music back and forth from the service window through the press of humanity, drawing attention less for the steaming delectables they carry than for their grotesque papier-mâché animal heads.
Donkey impatiently queues behind Parrot, Frankie, and Ibis, thumping his empty tray against his thigh. When he agreed to this gig, the boss promised the night of his life, a Mardi Gras party like none other, the apex of hedonism. He’d conveniently skirted around the all-important detail that he’d be serving the pricey booze to women in low-cut dresses instead of sipping it from their navels. He’d’ve bolted when they handed him the getup, but he’d be damned if he could turn down a cool grand in cash.
The line to receive another round of hoity-toity foodstuffs moves up a foot, then another. And then it stops. A pair of arms pinwheel wildly for balance as Ibis staggers under the weight of his own head, his tray abandoned to gravity with a crash of glass and silver.
But Donkey’s dreaming of a pulp-fiction escape involving a smoke, a dame, and a martini he didn’t make. He doesn’t notice Ibis’ distress until it’s too late. Their heads collide with a hollow thunk, toppling Donkey like a domino that sends an entire zoo of costumed waiters tumbling to the floor behind him.
Between angry waiters and broken stemware, Donkey’s the last to get vertical. He tries to reassert his place in the service line, but as Ibis has vanished, blame for the incident falls squarely on him. He quickly finds himself muscled out, standing in the ravenous mob with an empty tray in his hand and a shoeprint on the front of his coat.
As he jostles towards the end of the line, a guest knocks into his side, and a primal scream forms in Donkey’s throat. He’s had enough. He reels around, winds up to deliver a blistering diatribe, sees the perpetrator, then chokes on his fizzled rage.
Despite the elaborate peacock mask hiding half her face, she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.
“I’m sorry!” she shouts. The effort of yelling over the music makes the dark curls around her face and the heavy bosom not quite covered by gold ruffles bob dramatically. “I saw you fall! Are you okay?”
Donkey nods. The ill-fitting head slides around his neck. He’ll have a rash tomorrow.
“Are you sure?” She smiles with teeth so white inside ruby lips. “It seems like you could use a drink!”
Donkey considers this. He certainly could use a drink. And he can think of lots of ways he could use the company. Maybe he doesn’t have to escape the party after all. Maybe he can make this the night it was supposed to be.
He nods again. She smiles brighter and takes his arm.
“I’m Titania!” she shouts as they wade across the hall. Her name is even more lovely than the rest of her.
She shoulders into a gap at the crowded bar and orders two gin martinis, one with a straw, one without, both with olives. They clink glasses. Donkey drains his with a long, grateful slurp. The liquor burns going down and warms his chest. She laughs and elegantly tips back the contents of her own glass, then comes up coughing but still laughing, which warms him elsewhere.
The bartender asks if they want another. She says yes. Donkey waves no. She stares at him, or rather at one of his papier-mâché eyes, with scrutiny as she sips her second martini. He watches, entranced. Each movement of her lips, her fingers, her eyebrows inch him toward bravery. But the mischievous sparkle in her brown eyes and the blue-nailed finger she crooks at him after she slides her empty glass away relieve him of that burden. She leads him away without asking.
The coat closet is packed, the precious gap between racks of fur and wool now fully consumed by their bodies. The spaces between their clothes and their skin now occupied by each other’s hands. The muffled, slow song outside is a perfect accompaniment for the languorous way she unbuttons his white coat and slides open his belt, the trembling way he removes her mask and unzips her gown.
She presses to him with her face turned up. Her eyes shine with desire and gin, asking without speaking for the thing he fears most in this moment. He tenderly brushes her rouged cheek with his thumb, certain it’s their last touch. Then he closes his eyes, lowers his head, and does as he’s asked.
The song outside comes to a crescendo and the audience claps. The absurd donkey mask lands softly among the coats. He waits for the screams, the slamming of the door, the rough hands, the questions. In the silence between numbers, he is afraid.
There’s a touch on his face. He flinches and looks up with alarm. Her hand is out, her eyes are wide.
Yes. She’s smiling at him.
She reaches out again, timidly at first but growing bolder. He lets her run a smooth hand along the bridge of his nose, his broad cheek, his long ears, down his neck, past the hollow at his throat where brown fur turns to pale flesh.
He holds his breath.
She tucks herself back into his arms, the crown of her head nestled beneath his muzzle. “You are so beautiful,” she whispers.
Donkey exhales a ragged breath and hugs her fiercely.
Story by Ellie Di Julio 2015
Originally appeared on Deadly Ever After