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  • Don't Call Me Pretty. Chapter 1, 3572 words. By Katie D

    Edited draft of chapter one...

    1.
    The rock scone incident.

    I button down my white blouse two from the collar; not quite cleavage, not quite nun. There is no need for a final check in the mirror because I don’t wear make-up on the days I will cry. I look at the quote on my bedroom wall, trying to leach some of its soothing intent: “After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” ~ J.K. Rowling. If only I were as cold and unfeeling as the plaster behind it.

    Rosemary had been prepared. As she spoke kind and loving words to her family, her breath echoed the ominous death rattle. Knowing too well those were her last hours, I couldn’t keep my emotions in check and cried as I said goodnight for the last time.

    “Don’t cry for me, dear; save those tears for your first love.” Her breath crackled with grit as it laid a gravel road to death.

    “You deserve them more than any boy,” I managed through sobs.

    My tears are holding for now but the banks will break if I see Lindy’s look that says “we’ve been best friends since seven; you’re not fine”. I’m surprised she didn’t climb into my bed when I got the midnight call.


    The first time I saw Lindy, she was dancing to her own music while I sat alone, studying the shapes of the bark in the playground. She twirled around me as if tying us forever together in twine.

    I slip out the door and see Steve’s pick-up truck parked on the front lawn. Aha, that’s why she hasn’t emerged. Steve must have stayed over. You would think that after ten years, crazy love would have dulled but those two are insatiable. They are a yin-yang; she is a ball of energy and he is grounding and calm. Come to think of it, Steve and I are a lot alike.

    As I approach my car and get in, rays of sunshine filter through pastel clouds, smiling as if someone I cared about hadn’t died last night. There shouldn’t be any sun. It should be dreary and raining like the wet heavy way I feel. I turn on the headlights and take six streets to the other side of town. The people I pass, who know what headlights at eight in the morning signify, smile sympathetically. They always said I’d never be strong enough for the job; they’re right. Actually, I’m not strong enough for much.

    I look at the paper bag on the passenger seat and my wheel scrapes against the curb. Whoops. I’m particularly fuzzy this morning after waking at three from a surreal dream. Unable to drift back to sleep, I got up and baked scones. Bad scones that turned out rock-hard but I packed them for work anyway. The dream was about a woman. I don’t know why I dreamed of her or why she’s taken up lodgings in my memory. I was compelled to write every detail before I even got out of bed this morning.

    Seeds were sprouting at the roots of trees growing high into a lush green canopy. I followed a well-worn meandering path and saw a figure walking ahead. Her shape was familiar; a red dress hugged her killer waist like a pin up girl of the 1950’s and she clutched a purse that matched her high heels. A flood of emotions overwhelmed me, beating an ache into my chest. I moved to run to her but my feet were stuck in thick mud whilst she moved elegantly along the path. My lips opened to call her name, but it was buried too deep in my memory. She turned her head and her curls cascaded in response revealing her powdered rose petal cheek. The scene vanished and I woke, longing to see her face.


    ***

    Three heavy-duty pick-up trucks line the cul de sac of Begonia Nursing Home like dirty dogs at a Devonshire tea. Great! Men and dirt! Somehow, with me and either of the two,things always end up messy. I slump back into the driver’s seat. Engulf me please! Swallow me up and spit me into oblivion. Anything other than this intrusion into my own private world.

    Steve is standing by a truck and three of his friends who are beyond harmless, like brothers. I’ve known them for years and I’m not nauseated by them. It’s the three I recognize vaguely from the bar last night that are making me uncomfortable. I didn’t stay long after I saw Steve talking to them and figured they were the new workers he’d been talking about getting in for the renovation on Begonia Lodge.
    My usual parking-space is waiting for me and I pull in. I get out of my car and stares burn into my left side like a branding iron. I watch the ground pass under my feet as I head for the entrance. A pebble taps my shoulder and instantly I see Andy, who’s wearing an orange traffic cone as a witch’s hat and dancing an Irish jig. I forget the other men and laugh. If I weren’t so clumsy, it wouldn’t be so funny. If it wasn’t them, I would be throwing up by now.

    I feel the crunchy brown paper in my bag and wrap my palm around a rock scone. In one motion, I pull it from my bag and fling it at Andy. As my arm comes swinging down, I see a new guy walking towards them. I definitely would have remembered him from last night! He looks up, first to me and then to the scone about to hit him. Oh no . . . I run for the glass doors. My face is so hot; I must be so red.

    The automatic doors won’t open quickly enough as I hear laughter fill the street behind me. I can see the reflection of the tall stranger roughly rubbing his temple. I hate being me. I never fail to make a fool of myself! Come on, door. OPEN! OPEN! OPEN!!!
    The door finally opens and I move quickly through to the staff room where I can hide out. Unfortunately, though, not for long enough; only forever is enough and I have to start my shift.

    I'm trying to go on with work but I can’t stop thinking about the guy I hit with the scone. There is something puzzlingly familiar about him. His heavy-duty shoulders rolled in, something weighing down his chest, his focus never leaving the ground at his feet. He looked the way I felt as I dressed this morning. As the others laughed, he just looked. Not in anger or amusement or the intensity of a stare. I can’t figure out if this is what I want, or not. Any normal person would be angry at getting hit in the head with projectile baked goods. It would be better if he was. I can deal with anger. How am I meant to deal with nothing? My insides are winding up. I need to know what he’s thinking. I could ask.
    “Hey, I almost concussed you with a scone, how do you feel about that, would you like some Jam and cream?”
    Not an option, Anita.


    ***
    Mr. Casey’s trembling arm is hooked through mine; I guide him carefully over the threshold into the warm, fresh air. We smile at each other beneath the blue sky and continue on in silence. A butterfly dances restlessly from flower to flower, skipping on a slight breeze. My lungs fill with warm air and I close my eyes for a stolen moment to drift to another place, another time of wild flowers and quill-penned journals. Lifting my face to the sun, I allow it to paint a smile on my soul.

    A gritty ceramic shriek violently purges my daydream. My legs shudder in fright and I almost lose my step. My eyelids dart open. It’s so bright that I can’t see for a moment, I blink and blink again trying to look up to the noise. A crouching figure is on a roof close by. It’s him . . . He is a robust character, nothing more than task and muscle. Sweat polishes the tanned knots of his upper body as he methodically rips the terracotta tiles from each other. The way a man who looks like him would rip the heart right out of a doe-eyed girl and move to the next in line.

    The butterfly is now in my belly, as though my world of worn-out bodies and death is suddenly injected by his youth and vigor. Everything disappears from my mind and it’s back just as suddenly. I must be staring like a deer caught in headlights.

    “Time to go back inside, it’s getting too warm out here,” I say, looking down at Mr. Casey.

    “If you say so.” He gives me a grin and a wink. How can I help but smile and be bought back to my world with this cheeky little old man on my arm.

    Before we move off down the path, the grin still wide on my face, I look one last time at the stranger on the roof. He’s staring right back at me and now he’s going to think I’m smiling at him like some idiot. I lead Mr. Casey as fast as his feeble old legs can take him. I really want to hoist him up for a world record piggy-back sprint.

    ***
    A temporary wall of plywood seals a corridor from the main entrance to the administration counter, making a thoroughfare for the tradesman to the staff room where a stairwell is being built. The area is completely sealed off and the elderly have an insatiable child-like curiosity for what is on the other side. The door accessible to the staff room is closing slowly behind someone. I hear the lame shuffle of slippers and a giggling voice:

    “Found you, you hid good. Can we play again?” There is Marcy, the new resident, holding the arm of the tradesman I’ve been trying to avoid the most. Her head just reaches his elbow, her sugar white hair against his coffee brown skin. She rests her cheek on his arm and gazes adoringly up to the face I’ve only seen from a distance.

    He still has a small red mark on the left side of his forehead, an imperfection on an otherwise perfect face. He has all the prominence of a dark and handsome storybook prince with the ruggedness of a long-serving soldier. His jet black hair is cropped short and looks as though every hair was thought out before being planted. His eyes, oh God, his eyes are the most arcane green and are looking so far into mine that I look away before my brain turns to jelly and runs out my nose.

    I look back to Marcy who has dementia; she is confused easily and often loses the sense of time and place. I warmed to the frail, little old lady instantly this morning, her first day as a dementia resident at Bergonia Lodge.

    “Hello Marcy, my name is Anita. Nice to meet you.”

    Marcy scanned the room inquisitively. “Is this . . . our new home?"


    “Yes, Marcy. Welcome to your new home.”


    Not long after on my rounds, Marcy was struggling to free herself from a reclining lounge chair.


    “Marcy, now why didn’t you call for someone? Some of these chairs will swallow you up if given a chance." I helped Marcy from the hungry chair.


    “You were always so strong, thank you.” The odd answer puzzled me.


    “You’re welcome, Miss Marcy. Now let’s try this one. It’s on a diet and sweet ladies like you are off the menu.” Marcy chuckled as I helped her into the firmer chair.


    The tradesman seems taller. It’s as though the weight on his chest has been lifted. His shoulders are square, not rolled like they had been this morning. Now up close, I am intrigued by his face, I see his indifferent expression is locking something inside. The vivid green spheres of his eyes look into a world through damaged glass. Stone chips leave splinters and cracks that would damage even the most beautiful day.
    We stand motionless, his eyes on mine and mine in his until broken by Marcy’s childish plea, reaching out for my arm.

    “Come play with us.” I curl my arm around Marcy’s, linking all three of us in a row; youth, fragility and strength.

    “I’m afraid we have to get you back, Miss Marcy. It’s almost afternoon tea time”.

    “Can we play hide-and-seek later?” Her wrinkle framed eyes twinkle.

    “We’ll have to see, but for now come with me.” I speak with kind, soft persuasion as if to a child. Marcy won’t let go of the builder's arm, keeping hold with all her frail might, but he doesn’t pull away. He walks with us back to the door and gently uncurls his arm from Marcy’s, smiling warmly,

    “You go now and enjoy your morning tea or I’ll have to come and eat it all up." Marcy shakes with raspy giggles and huddles into my side as we walk down the hall. I can feel his eyes on me and I want to turn, to take one last look and try to see how his fractured eyes see me. I hesitate long enough thinking that he would have turned away. His eyes keep on me still.

    ***

    Five hours of my shift are behind me and I keep asking for a distraction from this nagging curiosity. Nope, still nothing. I wish my recall would fail and not bring his face to me every time I close my eyes. This can’t be normal. I only saw him for a moment and I can mentally map the topography of his face like I’ve known it every day of my life.

    I wonder if Steve knows his deal. He would have to know something from working alongside him. If Steve knows, then Lindy would know via their freakishly shared mind. I’ll ask Lindy tonight.

    I stop dead in my tracks. The residents are actually moving faster than I am. I can’t believe I haven’t thought about it all day. If I wanted a distraction, then this is it. The thing I have been dreading for months is only one day away.
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