On Her Special Day (Extended)

The snow fell thick and heavy, coating the window with a lacy frost. On another day, in another life, Anna would’ve welcomed the storm and the long shadow it cast within the room. She would have lit some candles, curled up on the chaise with a plush blanket and a book and propped a steaming mug of cocoa on a nearby table. A fire would have sparked and spit heat into her cozy suite. She would have felt safe.

Today, however, the snow induced a panic within her; Anna felt the plummeting, sharp crystals as a visceral brunt of rage from Mother Nature, and she could only endure the pounding pressure, the fury of the flurry until it passed. Feeling helpless, she put her hands over her ears and scrunched her eyes shut. She rocked back and forth, one foot covering the other, her arms squeezed tight to her sides. She was a concave form curling in on itself, spineless and primal.

The knock at the door startled her, caused her to shiver out of the shriveling, her fingers and toes, elbows and knees unfurling.

“Who is it?”

“It’s mother, dear. Can you please let me in?”

A rattling at the knob incited another rise of oily panic, which Anna tamped down as much as she could. Today was not the time to lose her tenuous grasp on sanity.

“Coming, Mother,” she said, rising and tightening the belt of her creamy silk robe.

“Honestly, honey, what is wrong with you? How long does it take to answer the door? What are you doing in there? Are you ready?”

Rose stalked into the room, her spiked heels clipping against the wooden floor. As she prowled her way to the voluminous, milky dress hanging at the front of the boxy wardrobe, one red stem caught on a loop of decorative carpet, causing the elegant woman to wobble.

Rose scowled at her daughter.

“Why do you insist on hauling in these disgusting rugs? They’re horrible, like someone vomited spools of thread. I thought I taught you better than that. What kind of style is this?”

Anna stood silently in the doorway as Rose wiggled her foot more securely into the strappy stiletto. Diamonds winked at her ears and her wrists, and a cold ruby hung at her décolletage. Her slim fingers remained bare of all fine jewels, of rose and yellow and white golds. She smoothed down her scarlet skirts and ran a hand over her artificially blond hair before turning to her daughter.

“Why aren’t you ready to put your dress on? Why isn’t your hair and makeup done? Are you serious, Anna? Today, of all days. Have you taken your medication?”

Anna fought the instinct to shrink her body, to hunch her shoulders so as to better absorb the stacked barbs her mother aimed in her direction.

“Yes, Mother. I always take it.”

Rose narrowed her green eyes, tastefully shadowed in a sparkling charcoal.

“I don’t know that I believe you, Anna. I just don’t know what to trust with you. You’re as bad as your father, may he rest in peace. You’re just going to have to pull it together today. I have neither the time nor the patience to accommodate you.”

Anna looked away as a painful tear surfaced near her lower left lid. She balled her fists to control the grief and the show of emotion. She couldn’t appear weak, especially not now, not like this, in front of her mother.

“Oh, stop it,” Rose huffed. “Not today. Today is special.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Sit down. Now. We clearly have work to do.”

Her brusque tone left little room to argue, and Anna knew better than to try. Years of therapy had taught her that she could only endure Rose’s force. A different kind of Mother Nature.

Rose clapped her hands, and the bracelets danced up and down her thin forearms.

“Let’s get started.”

She pulled and tugged at Anna’s long, wispy hair, jamming in bobby pins and yanking strands through a curling iron. Anna sat stoically and stared at the empty face reflected back at her in the vanity’s mirror. Rose reached for a bottle of hair spray and spritzed out the thick and heavy hold. Drops fell like flakes on Anna’s now helmet-like updo.

“Good. Make up.”

Chemical-smelling lotions and powders slapped across her tender skin, mascara globbed onto her pale eyelashes, a deep, rich crimson sunk into the crevices of her lips. When Rose stepped back, Anna caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She looked like a younger version of her mother. It was disconcerting. Anna felt her skin crawl, rejecting the phony exterior Rose had painted on.

The woman herself leaned in to examine her own reflection. Anna noticed the collection of wrinkles at the bridge of her mother’s nose, the fillers that gave Rose rounder, softer cheeks. She noticed Rose sliding a glance in her direction, and though Anna couldn’t understand why, she saw envy, resentment and a raw yearning pass over Rose’s plucked and pampered visage.

“Get your dress on now, Anna. It wouldn’t hurt you to smile, you know. There you go, nice and pretty like a good girl.”

Anna felt her cheeks crack at the smile, makeup dropping off in flecks to land on bare, ivory skin. Her blue robe pooled at her feet, and she strapped on the complicated undergarments Rose had insisted she wear; they gathered the loose skin from her weight loss and smoothed the puckered skin the cellulite had refused to concede. When Anna pulled the dress on, however, it felt light and smooth against her skin, a kiss, whisper. Rose pulled up the long zipper, then stood, hands on hips, assessing her daughter.

“You’ll do, I guess. You’ll do.”

Anna felt oddly like a prized piece of livestock, fattened and groomed and sold to the highest bidder. She rubbed her chilled arms, strove to recall the soothing feel of the fabric.

“Let’s go, Anna. Let’s go. Put on your shoes. That’s a girl.”

Anna tottered to the door, one hand gripping a lifted corner of the frothy gown, the other gingerly patting her painful, tight coif.

“Come on, come on. Chop, chop, Anna. People are waiting. It’s rude to make them sit around and wait for a prima donna.”

Anna nodded and passed through the door, Rose close behind her. As they reached the winding staircase, Rose wrapped talon-like fingers around Anna’s arm.

“Here comes the bride,” she trilled.

The piercing pitch made Anna wince and draw back, but Rose wouldn’t relinquish her hold. Guests milling about the gleaming, spacious foyer clapped. More guests, attracted by the commotion, streamed in from adjacent rooms and likewise applauded politely. For Anna, the smacking of skin against skin, flesh against flesh, was a dull ache running counterpoint to Rose’s shrillness.

As Anna descended the wide marble stairs, murmurs of “lovely bride,” “fortunate match,” “give it five years” stroked her body, icy cold and smooth. She shivered, again rubbed a hand over goose-pimpled flesh.

“Stop that,” Rose hissed. “Go to your fiancé. Now.”

The guests parted like the Red Sea, Anna thought to herself, allowing her to pass through to the man waiting for her. A man she barely knew. A man she couldn’t stand, couldn’t bear to touch.

Rose pushed at Anna’s back.

She stumbled forward, stopped, picked up the folds of her tulle petticoats and skirt. She walked toward the man, each step weightier than the last until the lifting of each foot felt like she was pulling it out of dense drifts of snow. The man, well-muscled and clean-shaven and with the air of someone used to power and prestige, embraced her, laid a chaste kiss on her cheek. She felt his soft lips pierce her skin. The guests oohed and aahed. Anna screamed, silently, hysterically.

She couldn’t get her lips to spread into a smile, and her hands began to tremble. Her heart hummed, her head lightened as she thought bleakly of her life. Her father’s death, not six months earlier; her mother’s quick matchmaking with the man she’d barely known in school, a boy who used to poke at her jiggly arms and thighs and laugh with his friends; the superficial well wishes from those she knew were consumed with more material matters than happiness.

When the man turned, eager to accept the congratulatory handshakes and thumping pats on the back, Anna shifted back, her new shoes sliding against the hardwood floor. Across the grand ballroom, where women clad in sequins and pearls and men in shiny tuxedos plucked delicate amuses-bouches from silver platters, a French door, its panes glistening, beckoned.

Anna twisted her way through the room, weaving between full champagne flutes that were the victims of grand gestures. None of the guests acknowledged the bride with the sad eyes and stunning gown, so immersed were they in the event of the season. With her arm behind her, Anna quickly and quietly unlatched the door. Her eyes darted from side to side as she inched her way out of the stately home, away from the much-anticipated ceremony and the lavish reception. The door closed with a click.

Anna continued backward until her calf hit snow. It didn’t register until she felt the icy bite of the wet fabric. She whirled, layers of fabric lifting around her. She looked back once at her mother, a woman whose lovely face and fashionable dress belied her greedy and competitive nature. Rose was in her element, flirting with the latest widower, her mouth stretched wide in laughter, her body leaning forward, her hand draped on his arm. Anna knew that, given enough time, Rose would once again claw her way to the top of the financial and social pyramid, looking regally down at those beneath her, Anna included.

With her back to the house, to the man, to the mother, to her future, Anna leapt into the snow.

And she ran.

She ran and ran, flying across the field, past the stables and the tennis courts and the small cemetery that housed the still upright, shiny tombstone of her father. Anna’s pale skin and hair and her wedding gown were camouflaged by the strengthening storm as she streaked away from the mansion. Her legs, which had once dragged her body forward, now pistoned in the heaps of snow. Her breath puffed out in foamy clouds, and the freshness of the air revived her, pinkening her arms and cheeks, brightening her eyes.

She ran until she could run no more, until she reached the stream that bordered the estate. Without a thought, she splashed in. Droplets of water tickled her nose, slid down her cheeks. She fell backwards, arms splayed, eyes closed.

Her head hit a rock that split open her skull with a pop. Her blood pumped out, mixing with the freezing water and the swirling fabrics. From the pocket of her dress, an orange bottle swam out, the pills inside rattling with the force of the current. The make up washed off, and the hair loosened from its pins to dance around the young woman’s beautiful, serene face. Snowflakes, burying her in a pure, shallow grave, fell one by one. Those that bussed the water disappeared. Her heels, caked in dirt, the satin ruined by moisture, bobbed nearby, hovering, until they floated away, swept along by the stream.

She was free.

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Cake

Stacey wiped at her forehead with the back of her hand. She let out a long, slow breath then returned to her kneading, her palms massaging, manipulating and working the dough. With a grunt, she dropped the floury ball into a stainless steel bowl, which she then covered with a white towel. The motions were routine and mindless, and she began humming with every step.

Robert stood at the expansive “Whip It Good” bakery windows, watching Stacey move gracefully inside. Although it was closed and the main lights were turned off, the kitchen remained softly lit. Stacey glowed inside, her hair halo-like, her skin smooth. He missed her.

Stacey rummaged through the refrigerator, pulled out a long sheet of cupcakes. With a bulging bag of blue frosting nestled in her hands, she leaned over to circle and circle and circle the sugary topping on the moist pastry. She captured a drip of frosting on her finger and licked it off before admonishing herself and shifting to the small sink to wash her hands. Good thing no one could see her.

Robert rubbed a hand across his chest, the ache for her palpable. They’d been friends since college, had danced around each other and a possible romance for years. They’d taken the big leap a few weeks ago and hooked up. Then they’d hooked up again. And again. Finally, last night, as they’d wrapped themselves around each other in damp sheets, he’d told her how he really felt.

“Stacey, I…” he’d begun, hands lifted helplessly.

“What?” she’d asked, rubbing her nose against his stubbly cheek.

“I’m in love with you.”

Stacey’s mouth had dropped open. Then she’d giggled. Then laughed.

“I’m sorry, Robert,” she’d said. She kissed him lightly. “I love you, too. I love our time together. I love spending the night with you.”

Hope had sparked and died as she spoke. He was only a friend. He’d untangled himself from her, from the blankets. She’d left, pity and confusion clouding her blue eyes.

Stacey fit cupcake after cupcake into cardboard cutouts and folded down the lid of the to-go box. These were apology cupcakes, she’d decided. She couldn’t believe she’d laughed at Robert when the words had spilled out of his mouth. She’d panicked, she told herself. She loved him. She could picture their life together, their wedding – with a “Whip It Good” seven-tiered masterpiece, of course – their children, two girls with his chocolate eyes, her raven locks. She hummed louder, even tossed out a lyric or two of the pop song running through her head.

Robert allowed himself a minute longer to gaze at the singing Stacey, happily at home in her bakery. When his phone vibrated, he fished it out of his pocket, read the message: “Ready 2 go?”

He texted back: “Yea. Meet u at airport.”

From inside, Stacey cleaned up her workspace, checked on the bread – it would go in the oven in the morning after rising – and hung up her apron. She opened up her purse, dug through it for her phone.

Luggage rested on the sidewalk near Robert’s feet. He looked at Stacey, her back to him, her clog-encased foot beating a simple rhythm on the floor.

Stacey swiped through the phone. No messages. Nothing from Robert.

Robert slung a luggage strap across his shoulder, extended the handle of his suitcase with a click.

Stacey, with the cupcakes in one hand, slid her arm through the loops of her purse straps.

Robert waved at the turned Stacey through the window.

Stacey, tapping through the phone with a spare finger, didn’t see the shadow outside.

Robert turned and walked away, his suitcase bumping along the sidewalk.

Stacey turned and walked out the front door. She glanced right and left down the street as she locked the door. Empty.

Robert’s phone buzzed.

“I luv u 2.”

Skedaddle

Louise couldn’t explain why, but she felt dissatisfied with her life. She had a decent job (though her working environment bordered on hostile, thanks to the dysfunctional family that owned the business), her marriage was good, her family was happy. Yet, when she assessed it all, the only conclusion she could come to was: “Is this all? Is this all my life will be?”

She parked her car, finally home after the 38-minute commute from work, and walked inside the apartment, kicking off her shoes at the front door. The apartment was empty – her husband would work until 10 p.m., most likely – and it smelled vaguely of microwaved pasta, no doubt Erik’s lunch. His dishes lay on the counter, red sauce congealed and drying on the white ceramic plate.

Louise sighed, pulled off her purse to drop it on the floor and carried the detritus of Erik’s meal to the sink. She turned on the faucet. The sound of rushing water was soothing, and she held a hand under the stream until water pooled on the precariously piled dishes.

She twisted off the tap, shook the drips of water off her hand, wiped it on a nearby dishtowel. Then she peeled off her work clothes, all of which were dirtied by the lingering smell of second-hand smoke, and shrugged into flannel pants.

With Erik gone and the apartment to herself, Louise settled in her habitual corner of the couch, her laptop open and waiting for exploration. With the evening stretching before her, she grabbed a bag of M&Ms and clicked open her browser.

What would happen, what would Erik say if she bought one-way plane tickets to Europe? He was a dual citizen with Germany, and she was close to dual citizenship, thanks to their marriage. They could sell everything – the cars, the hand-me-down furniture, the piles and piles of books lining the walls – and just leave. Find work abroad. Leave behind their small Midwest town with its rampant racism, single movie theater, blocks and blocks of cheap buffets and Taco Bells. They could escape the banality of day-to-day life in a place with a population of 75,000, run to the better-fitting cities of millions.

Louise sat back, immersed in her daydream. It would be glorious. Plus, with universal health care in Europe, they could finally start their family and not feel weighed down by bills, bills, bills.

A knock on the door shook her out of the reverie.

She scooched the laptop to the cushion next to her, unfolded her legs to unlock and open the door.

Erik walked through, dumped his briefcase and toed off his shoes. He grabbed Lousie, wrapped her in his customary warm embrace, kissed her cheek with a smack.

“Liebling!”

“Hey, what are you doing home?”

“Brought work with me,” Erik replied, gesturing to the briefcase lying flat on the non-descript, beige carpet of the rental.

“I thought it’d just be me tonight.”

“Nope. What are you working on?”

Erik walked to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator to pilfer its contents. He withdrew a half-empty plastic box of strawberries, then plucked them out, one-by-one, by the stem.

“I’m just looking at plane tickets,” Lousie said casually, watching for Erik’s response.

“Plane tickets for what?”

“Plane tickets to leave. To go to Germany.”

Erik sent her a look, one clearly magnifying his skepticism, reluctance.

“Why do you want to leave here? We’ve got jobs, cars. We’re going to move to a bigger city, we just need some experience first.”

Louise felt her optimism drain. The walls began closing in, her vision wavered and her hands shook.

“I can’t…I can’t keep doing this.”

“Doing what?”

“This! I’m not happy here!”

“No one is happy,” Erik said, strawberries muffling the words.

“Please, Erik. I’m serious. I need to get out of here. We can sell everything, have a fresh start. Have babies, maybe.”

Erik put the strawberries down, walked over to his wife. Hugged her, rubbed her back.

“We’ll go. Give it another six months.”

“That’s what you said six months ago!”

“I know, but we need the experience on our resumes. You can make it another six months.”

“I don’t know if I can,” Lousie said, her eyes welling up painfully as despair coursed through her.

“Yes, you can. I promise. Did you eat dinner yet?”

“No.”

Louise settled back onto the couch, lifted the computer to her lap. Changed her search from Germany to the Virgin Islands. Changed the search from two tickets to one. Clicked “Reserve.”

She’d leave at the end of the week.

Business and Pleasure

Annamaria Podge was an ordinary woman who led a quiet life. At 45 years old, she was, for Polk City’s townfolk, an established bachelorette. She enjoyed nights at home with her five cats, was a solid, if quiet member of the local Tuesday and Ta Ya Mim clubs and played hymns at the Baptist church on Sunday mornings. She answered when spoken to, but her timidity radiated around her plump form like a shield, keeping strangers at bay and those who knew her deep in pity.

In Polk City, she was plain old Annamaria. A shallow presence, a part of the woodwork. In her private life, Annie was a different woman entirely.

On the night of Friday, Jan. 23, Annie bundled up her fleshy figure in a bright track suit with geometric shapes in vivid blues, greens and reds. Her wilting dishwater blond tresses were pulled back in a tight bun fixed where fat from her back rolled up to kiss the nape of her neck. With sausage-like fingers, thick but always adept on the aged and always slightly out-of-tune church piano, she pulled on a wig of curls dubbed “burnt sienna.” It was a color more apt for walls than hair, but the wig effectively detracted from Annie’s pitted visage. After smearing on bright red lipstick, she ran her tongue over crooked teeth, tugged once more on the wig and stood from the dressing table.

The slicky pants whined as her lumbered walking rubbed the fabric between her thighs, but the sound wouldn’t matter when she got there. She lifted one of her many framed flower needlepoints from her living room wall to set on a highbacked floral print chair. From the concealed safe, she snapped on black latex gloves, then drew out her snub-nosed .38. She’d have to dump the gun, per usual, which was a shame. She’d really come to like the blunt revolver. It didn’t have the shooting power of some of the flashier guns she’d used, but it fit comfortably in her hand. She caressed it gently with one plastic-encased finger before slipping bullets out of a cardboard box to load in the cartridge.

With her weapon nestled in a leather fanny pack, she adjusted the strap, once, then twice, until it clipped comfortably around her middle. She said goodbye to the felines lolling about the small house and locked the back door.

Her 1985 blue Buick Century rumbled to life, and she wriggled the fanny pack to her side in order to stretch the seat belt to its buckle. With her heart bumping, she pulled out of the carport, the map and instructions spread across the passenger seat. She had them memorized already, she always did, but she enjoyed having the paper as back up. This job, in any case, was familiar. She knew the target, suspected she knew the client, but she never asked questions. When Roy had paged her, she’d called back to listen only. No questions, no trouble, no feelings. The money would be placed in an offshore account, and Annie was counting down the days until her fiftieth birthday when she could collect. She would miss Polk City – it was her home – but the call of white sand beaches and shimmering blue water was seductive. She would retire, move to paradise and immerse herself in romantic novels and greasy French fries until she keeled over. The thought of it made her smile as her headlights slashed through the night.

When she pulled up to the restaurant, her heart’s bumping had accelerated to pounding. She looked for a space next to the zippy red convertible and waited. The diners milling in front of the windows of the warm eatery looked happy, Annie thought. A small part of her yearned to be inside with them, dining on delicious food while engaging in witty banter with a handsome man. She would feel confident and beautiful, smart and classy and all the other adjectives that had long-ago escaped her pudgy grasp. But she’d found her calling in killing, and that was the way it was.

She pushed aside the thoughts of loneliness and the thick depression to focus. When she found her target, she nodded to herself. The woman was paying the check, and her husband was nowhere to be seen. Probably left early for a medical emergency. “Medical emergency,” Annie thought. Read: Meet with the Pastor’s wife, with whom he was having a relationship. The whole congregation knew it.

When the woman, slim and blonde, pushed out of the heavy restaurant door, Annie unzipped her fanny pack and pulled the gun out, fitting her pointer finger over the trigger. The blonde walked slowly, her gaze low and her features pulled downward. When she reached the convertible, Annie rolled down her window.

“Hello?” she asked.

The blonde looked up, her face revealing her shock at Annie’s garish appearance.

“Yes?”

“Are you Cassandra Pickler?”

“Yes. May I help you?”

“No.”

Annie lifted the gun and shot the woman twice. Once for the kill, the second for good measure As the woman dropped to the asphalt next to her car, Annie let out a long, slow breath and calmly placed the gun and the discarded shell casings on top of the papers. She put the car in reverse and drove the curving and dipping streets home, where a box of powdered donuts and a video of “An Affair to Remember” were waiting.

The car was later found in a used lot. The gun was never recovered. The bustling crowd in the restaurant never heard the shot, nor did they see a flash. The only thing they could remember was a heavyset woman with rich brown hair and a flashy jogging suit. No one remembered her face.

On Her Special Day

The snow fell thick and heavy, coating the window with a lacy frost. On another day, in another life, the storm and the long shadow it cast within the room would have been cozy, sheltering. Anna would have lit some candles, curled up on the chaise with a plush blanket and a book and propped a steaming mug of cocoa on a nearby table.

Today, however, the snow induced a panic within her. It was a visceral brunt of rage from Mother Nature, and Anna could only endure the pounding pressure, the fury of the flurry until it passed. Feeling helpless, she put her hands over her ears and scrunched her eyes shut. She rocked back and forth, one foot covering the other, her arms squeezed tight to her sides. She was a concave form curling in on itself, spineless and primal.

The knock at the door startled her, caused her to shiver out of the withering, her fingers and toes, elbows and knees unfurling.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Mother, dear. Can you let me in please?”

A rattling at the knob incited another rise of oily panic in Anna, which she tamped down as much as she could. Today, right now, was not the time to lose her tenuous grasp on sanity.

“Coming, Mother,” she said, rising and tightening the belt of her creamy silk robe.

“Honestly, honey, what is wrong with you?”

Rose stalked into the room, her spiked heels clipping against the wooden floor. As she prowled her way to the dress hanging at the front of a boxy wardrobe, one red stem caught on a loop of decorative carpet, causing the elegant woman to wobble.

Rose scowled, glared at her daughter.

“Why do you insist on hauling in these disgusting rugs? I thought I taught you better than that.”

Anna stood silently in the doorway.

“Why aren’t you dressed? Why isn’t your hair and makeup done? Are you serious, Anna? Today, of all days. Have you taken your medication?”

Anna fought the instinct to shrink her body, hunch her shoulders so as to better absorb the barbs her mother aimed in her direction.

“Yes, Mother. I always take it.”

Rose narrowed her eyes.

“I don’t know that I believe you, Anna. I just don’t know what to trust with you. You’re as bad as your father, may he rest in peace.”

Anna looked away as a painful tear surfaced near her lower left lid.

“Oh, stop it,” Rose huffed. “Not today. Today is special.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Sit down. Now.”

Her brusque tone left little room to argue, and Anna knew better than to try. Years of therapy had taught her that she could only endure Rose’s force. A different kind of Mother Nature.

Rose clapped her hands.

“Let’s get started.”

She pulled and tugged at Anna’s wispy blond hair, jamming in bobby pins and yanking strands through a curling iron. Anna sat stoically and stared at the empty face reflected back to her in the vanity’s mirror. Rose reached for a bottle of hair spray and spritzed out the thick and heavy hold, drops falling like flakes on Anna’s now helmet-like updo.

“Good. Make up.”

Chemical-spelling lotions and powders slapped across her tender skin, mascara globbed onto her pale eyelashes, a deep, rich red sunk into the crevices of her lips. When Rose stepped back, Anna caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She looked like a younger version of Rose. It was disconcerting. Anna felt her skin crawl, rejecting the phony exterior her mother had painted on.

“Get your dress on now, Anna. It wouldn’t hurt you to smile, you know. There you go, nice and pretty like a good girl.”

Anna felt her cheeks crack at the smile, makeup falling off in flecks to drop onto bare skin. Her robe pooled at her feet, and she strapped on the complicated undergarments Rose had insisted she wear. When she pulled the dress on, it felt light and smooth against her skin, a kiss, whisper. Rose pulled up the long zipper, then stood, hands on hips, assessing her daughter.

“You’ll do, I guess. You’ll do.”

Anna felt oddly like a prized piece of livestock, fattened and groomed and sold to the highest bidder. She rubbed her chilled arms, strove to recall the soothing feel of the fabric.

“Let’s go, Anna. Let’s go. Put on your shoes. That’s a girl.”

Anna tottered to the door, one hand gripping a lifted corner of the frothy gown, the other gingerly patting her painfully tight coif.

“Come on, come on. Chop, chop, Anna. People are waiting. It’s rude to make them sit around and wait for a prima donna.”

Anna nodded and passed through the door, Rose close behind her. As they reached the winding staircase, Rose wrapped talon-like fingers around Anna’s arm.

“Here comes the bride,” she trilled.

The piercing pitch made Anna wince and draw back, but Rose wouldn’t relinquish her hold. Guests milling about the gleaming foyer clapped politely. The smacking of skin against skin, flesh against flesh, was a dull ache running counterpoint to Rose’s shrillness.

The murmurs of “lovely bride,” “fortunate match,” “give it five years” stroked her body, icy cold and smooth. She shivered, again rubbed a hand over goose pimpled flesh.

“Stop that,” Rose hissed. “Go to your fiancé. Now.”

The guests parted, like the Red Sea, Anna thought to herself, allowing her to pass through to the man waiting for her. A man she barely knew. A man she couldn’t stand, couldn’t bear to touch.

Rose pushed at Anna’s back.

She stumbled forward, stopped, picked up the folds of her petticoat and skirt. She walked toward the man, each step weightier than the last until the lifting of each foot felt like pulling it out of dense drifts of snow. The man embraced her, laid a chaste kiss on her cheek. The guests oohed and aahed. Anna screamed, hysterically, silently.

When the man turned, eager to accept the congratulatory handshakes and thumping pats on the back, Anna shifted back, her new shoes sliding against the hardwood floor. Behind her was a French door, its panes glistening, beckoning. With her arm behind her, she quickly and quietly unlatched the door. Her eyes darted from side to side, but no one noticed the bride inching her way out of the regal home, away from the much anticipated ceremony and the lavish reception. The door closed with a click.

Anna continued backward until her slim calf hit snow. It didn’t register until she felt the icy bite of the wet fabric. She swirled, layers of fabric lifting around her. Her back to the house, to the man, to the mother, to her future, she leapt into the snow.

And she ran.

She ran and ran, flying across the field, her pale skin and hair and her wedding gown camouflaged by the strengthening storm. Her breath puffed out in foamy clouds, and she felt the freshness of the air revive her, pinkening her arms and cheeks, brightening her eyes.

She ran until she could run no more, until she reached the stream that bordered the estate. Without a thought, she splashed in. Droplets of water tickled her nose, slid down her cheeks. She fell backwards, arms splayed, eyes closed.

Her head hit a rock that split open her skull with a pop. Her blood pumped out, mixing with the freezing water and the swirling fabrics. Snowflakes fell one by one, covering her, burying her. Those that bussed the water disappeared. Her heels bobbed nearby, hovering, until they floated away, swept along by the gentle current.

Free.

Snapshots

Evelyn clicked the cap back on the marker. She rummaged through her junk drawer to find the scotch tape and pulled off four long strips to secure the two pieces of paper to the wall in front of her bed – perfect viewing for when she woke up in the morning. Hastily drawn in block letters were the words “Give It Time.”

She stood back from her handiwork and began to slowly and sadly peel away the night. First came her eyelashes, silky black and damp with tears. She sniffed and pulled off her dress, unhooked her bra, kicked off her pumps. After a rubbing her hands across her splotchy face, she wrapped herself in a chenille robe and curled in bed.

Funny, she’d always had a feeling about Charlie. Even though they’d been together for seven years, she’d had regularly fantasies about him cheating. About her walking in on him with another woman, and she would walk off in her self-righteous glory, and he would come begging, and she’d tell him, “It’s over!” And then she could return to a life of singledom and glorious girls’ nights without having to worry about him.

It didn’t happen exactly as she’d thought.

They’d gone out to dinner. He’d held her hand across the table. She’d gazed at him over the candle, taking in the way the flame highlighted the crinkles around his eyes, his full lips, the crease where the bridge of his nose met his forehead. He was so cute.

They ate, they talked, they kissed. He wanted to go home, she wanted to go out. They separated, he left.

Evelyn had met up with Cassie at a nearby bar for dry martinis and girl talk. She mentioned Charlie going home early (“I don’t know, he just said he didn’t feel like going out, I guess. He’s tired. He’s got a lot going on at work. You know how it is. It’s fine with me that he stays home. Better that he gets his rest so we can go to your dinner party next weekend. It’s fine, really. It’s fine.”), and Cassie pursed her lips.

“Honey, you know I love you. If you knew John were doing something that would upset me, you’d tell me, right?”

“Right,” Evelyn responded.

“Well, I’d do the same for you.”

“What are you talking about?” The martini sloshed uncomfortably in Evelyn’s stomach.

“I’ve just heard rumors, that’s all.”

“About Charlie?”

“Evelyn.”

“What have you heard?”

“John just mentioned that Charlie had gotten close to someone.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know. He wouldn’t say.”

Evelyn set down the martini, her appetite for olives and gin gone. She stood up shakily and picked the coat off her stool.

“Be careful, honey. I love you. Call me, please.”

Evelyn nodded, reached to give her best friend a hug.

“I love you, too.”

She went outside, welcoming the cool air after the sudden stifling heat in the bar. She called a cab. And she wrapped her coat tightly around her.

***

“Evelyn!” Cassie shouted through the locked door. She pounded her fist again. “Evelyn, will you please open this door?”

Evelyn groaned. Break-up hangover. Her head pounded, her stomach was unsteady, her eyes were gritty with shallow sleep.

“Go away.”

“I’m not going anywhere. You get your ass up, and open this door right now!”

Evelyn rolled out of bed, landing on her knees. “Damnit,” she muttered before pulling herself up. She adjusted her twisted pajamas and made her way to the door, her bare feet slapping against the floor.

“What?” She asked, pulling open the door.

“Oh, dear God,” Cassie said. “Get back inside.”

Evelyn stepped aside, while Cassie walked in. She laid two grocery bags of cookies, chocolate and potato chips on the counter and turned to look at her friend.

“Where’s your hairbrush?”

“The bathroom,” Evelyn replied. She walked to the couch and threw herself on it, pulling down the blanket laid across the back. She flipped on the television, settled on “The Real Housewives of New York City.”

“It’s time for damage control,” Cassie said, returning to the room with a hairbrush, deodorant and mouth spray in hand.

Evelyn dragged the blanket over her head.

“I know you guys just broke up like a week ago, but I have someone I want you to meet.”

“Cassie, I’m not ready.”

“Honey, I know you’re not ready, but you’ll never be ready. Just give yourself a chance.”

“I’m giving it time.”

“Yeah, I know. I saw the sign.”

“I saw a sign. A sign with long legs, perfect hair and lingerie from La Perla.”

“Please. You and I both know his taste isn’t that good.”

Evelyn lowered the blanket and eyed Cassie.

“That’s not how I meant it. You were too good for him. Way better than he deserved. Now is your chance to finally realize what you’re worth. Sit up.”

Evelyn sat up, let Cassie run the brush through her tangled hair. Maybe Cassie was right. She’d been making excuses for a long time. And, the truth was, she’d always had reservations about Charlie. Whenever they were together – without the distraction of T.V., movies, friends – she’d worried about not having anything to talk about. It was exhausting coming up with things to say. Shouldn’t that have been easy?

“Who’s the guy?”

“Yes!” Cassie punched the hairbrush in the air. “You’ll really like him. He’s sweet, friendly, charming. His name is Levi.”

“What does he do?”

“He’s a writer. For a men’s magazine.”

“Which one?”

“I don’t know, who cares! He’s good-looking, and he’s available.”

Evelyn looked down at her lap, at her fingers. She flexed them, examined her nails.

“Ok. Ok.”

Cassie slapped the brush down on the table.

“Let’s go pick out something for you to wear. It’ll be good, trust me.”

“I trust you.”

They walked to Evelyn’s closet, passing through the bedroom and the sign.

Evelyn glanced briefly at it then let herself be tugged along.

“You look great in red,” Cassie said.

***

Evelyn and Levi walked down the hallway, fingers entwined, eyes locked. Evelyn smiled, suddenly shy and embarrassed, and looked away. Levi, delighted, unlaced his fingers to wrap an arm around her and kiss her on the temple. Evelyn blushed, her cheeks hot to the touch.

“So, would you like to come in? I think I have some cake, if you’d be interested.”

“Ok,” he agreed.

Evelyn combed through her purse, searching for her keys. They jangled in her hands as she clumsily unlocked the door. She giggled and shrugged, then mentally kicked herself for looking foolish.

She pushed open the door, held it for Levi as he walked in and surveyed her place. It was clean – sort of – and Evelyn scooped up scattered music to pile on a chair.

“Sorry, it’s not very neat in here” she said.

“It’s fine,” Levi said, taking a seat on the coach, laying an arm across the back. “Why don’t you come sit with me?”

“Don’t you want cake?”

“Maybe later.”

Evelyn smoothed the skirt of her dress, ran a hand over her mane of curls, mentally said a quick “Don’t mess this up, don’t mess this up, don’t mess this up,” before settling herself on the couch within the circle of Levi’s arm.

“So,” she said, giggling again. And kicked herself for it.

“So,” he said. “Tell me more about yourself.”

“Ok, um…I’m a classical pianist. I play with the symphony, and I play with some ensembles around town. I teach in my spare time.”

“Could you teach me sometime?”

“Sure,” Evelyn said, relaxing into his body. Music was always a comforting, familiar topic for her. “What about you? What’s your passion?”

“I have lots of passions,” he said, winking.

Oh, God, she thought. He winked. It was so awful when guys winked, but when he did it…it caused a ripple through her.

He leaned over, kissed her cheek, the lobe of her ear. His fingers tangled in her hair to rub the back of her head.

Although she wanted, desperately, to let him take her over, she began to feel awkward, off-balance. Her mind was racing, flashes of Charlie, of his comforting, familiar touch. The thought brought a wave of longing, an ache deep in her chest that overwhelmed the brief curl of lust. She leaned back, turned to face him.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I just went through a bad break up. I’m not ready yet.”

Levi continued his gentle massaging, his fingers moving to the nape of her neck.

“I understand.”

He angled toward her, laid his lips softly on hers. She kissed him back. He withdrew, gripped her hands and gave them a reassuring squeeze.

“How about that cake?”

#selfie

Raven stepped back from the bathroom mirror, her lips glistening, her cheeks rosy, her dark hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail.

“I’m ready,” she called.

Robin, her 4-year-old daughter, looked up from a stack of princess coloring books. With a sigh, she returned to her coloring, her fist gripping a pink crayon and rubbing faster, faster, faster across the page until it tore.

“Robin? Did you hear me?”

“Yes,” came the sullen response.

Raven strode into the neatly arranged living room. It had been the first project on her DIY/mommy blog. The sofa was white, the walls were white, the rug was jute, and piles of pillows added pops of color. Framed photos of mother and daughter, as well as graphic prints designed by Raven, were layered on every reclaimed wood table.

“Let’s go, come on!”

Robin dropped her crayon and twisted around in her soft blue wicker chair. Her legs dangled inches above the floor.

“Come on!”

Robin slid slowly down until her toes grabbed the rug, then she squeezed herself between the chair and the rehabbed desk. She slunk toward her mother, whose gaze rested on the black smartphone nestled in her palm.

“Mom?”

“Ok, ok, ok.”

Raven dropped to her knees and hugged Robin to her. Robin, trapped in the tight embrace, struggled.

“Robin, please,” Raven scolded.

Robin crossed her arms, frowned.

“Smile, please!” Raven lifted the camera with her right hand.

Robin lifted one corner of her mouth.

Click.

Raven eagerly turned over the phone.

“Robin, seriously. I don’t have time for this.”

Robin, irritated, fed up, stretched her mouth to her ears.

Click-click-click.

“Ok, go sit back down.”

Robin turned on her heel, her skin scraping against the harsh ropes of the rug. She dragged the chair back before stepping in front of it. With her hands behind her, she twisted it to one side, then another, maneuvering it into place and climbing into the seat. She looked back at her mother to scowl, but once again, Raven’s eyes were on the screen.

Robin resumed her coloring.

“Honey, answer some questions for me.”

Robin sighed.

“Mo-om, I’m busy!”

“No, you’re not,” Raven replied, her finger tap-tap-tapping on the phone screen. “Now, what is your favorite animal? Do you remember?”

“Bird,” Robin deadpanned.

“Good! What would be a silly dinner?”

“Tomato soup and popcorn.”

Raven looked up, cocked an eyebrow.

“And…little, itty-bitty wormies,” Robin finished, her voice rising into forced joviality.

Raven smiled.

“Good! Last one: Who is your best friend in the whole wide world?”

Robin returned her gaze to the coloring book.

“You.”

“That’s right, Robin-pie!”

Raven turned to update “Raven’s Nest.” “My baby girl is so adorable; check out our ‘Straight from the bird’s mouth!’” read the blog post description. “Cheeky! #selfie#lovethatsmile#kidsarecute” read the caption on the Instagram photo.

Raven settled on the couch to spend the rest of her evening moderating and responding to comments. Robin played alone.

The Writer Loses

“The wind ripped through the field, slicing blades of grass in two and lifting dandelion fluff into the air to scatter.”

Penelope sat back and laced her fingers behind her head. She read the sentence, approved it. Then she clicked away from the page, checked her email, updated her Facebook status, perused an article on introverts. Tweeted about it.

When she returned to the page, the sentence read differently. Wind doesn’t rip, she thought. That sounds stupid. Rip is an active verb, but how can something rip across a field? It should rip a direct object. She tapped at the delete key, erasing the word. A quick check of the thesaurus inspired her to insert “whipped.”

“The wind whipped through the field, slicing blades of grass in two and lifting dandelion fluff into the air to scatter.”

Better, she thought. Kind of like a tornado.

She pushed up from the kitchen chair to pour apple cider into a thick ceramic mug that said “Every writer is a reader.” After popping it in the microwave for a minute, she slurped at the liquid bumping against the lip and sat back down.

“The wind whipped through the field, slicing blades of grass in two and lifting dandelion fluff into the air to scatter.”

Maybe the grass shouldn’t be sliced in two, she thought, especially if it’s being whipped. Maybe it should rub together and make that squeaking sound. Like in the summer when you place a blade between your thumbs and blow.

“The wind whipped through the field, lifting dandelion fluff into the air to scatter. Blades of grass hummed as they rubbed against each other.”

Nope. Again, it just sounded stupid. Rubbing wasn’t right. Neither was humming. What if the grass was long? Stalk-like?

“The wind whipped through the field, bending thin whips of grass in two and lifting dandelion fluff into the air to scatter.”

Not bad. Not great. Okay for now. Terrible. God, she was never going to be a professional writer. The whole thing was awful. She had two “whips” in one sentence, and whipping didn’t even go with bending; the two verbs should be related somehow, part of a metaphor for life on the prairie. Plus, dandelion fluff doesn’t need to be lifted into the air to scatter. It should just scatter, no lifting necessary. As few words as possible. Neat and simple.

“The wind twisted through the field, snapping blades of grass in two and scattering dandelion fluff.”

An improvement, she  supposed.

The cider warmed her belly then, soothing and comforting. She took another sip, holding it in her mouth to absorb the full sweetness.

“The wind twisted through the field, snapping blades of grass in two and scattering dandelion fluff.”

She set down the mug with a clap on the table and pulled fingers through her tangled, curling hair.

No, it was horrible, she thought, grimacing at the ceiling. Who writes like this? Writing to impress always sounds like crap. But writing too simply lowers the quality, doesn’t it? How are you supposed to write cleanly with as little adverbs and adjectives as possible and still create an image with words?

It was the beast, she realized. The beast sharpening its claws on her words, sinking its pointed nails into her confidence to draw it closer. To nibble and lick. To devour.

The beast of insecurity.

It won. It always won.

She deleted the sentence and walked away.

The Wonderful World of Pink Clouds

They told her there would be problems. There were already complications. She’d been confined to bed rest, her swollen belly resting on a curved pillow she tucked between her spongy thighs. Daytime television already bored her, the bright figures with their asinine banter and helmet-like hair. Soaps were too confusing – and dull – and she just couldn’t stomach the mentally unstable women appearing on Dr. Phil. Only Jeopardy! was a relief to watch, but even that became monotonous after a few weeks.

Still, the boredom, the sacrifice of her independence and freedom was worth it. She could feel the pebble of life growing in her, and now she rubbed her hand over her tight abdomen.

Yes, it was worth the complications.

She pushed back stringy black hair from an unwashed, freckled face and reached over to the nightstand. Dan left a tray for her every morning before he went to work; today’s selection was brittle toast and peanut butter. She snapped off a corner to pop in her mouth and leaned back into poufy, goose-down pillows. The remote, her constant companion these days, rested next to her on the twisted sheets.

She’d recently come to the conclusion that this sliver of leisure time would be her last for the foreseeable future. Once the baby came, out would go Tracy of Sleeping In, Midnight Movie Premieres and Luxuriant Baths accompanied by Bestselling Novels. In would come Tracy, the Mother. She couldn’t wait.

Wiggling her toes in excitement, she allowed herself one bubbling giggle. She’d been so lucky to get pregnant in the first place, she thought, surfing through channels so swiftly they flashed by in a rainbow-like blur. All of her friends, bless their hearts, were still trying. Junie had just come to terms with IVF, Maude had suffered her second miscarriage a few months ago. But Tracy, she’d been blessed within weeks. Of course, Dan hadn’t known they’d been trying, but he’d come around. And he’d come around again, after the baby was born.

Yes, this baby was going to be perfect.

Dan still needed to get started on the nursery, too. He’d been reluctant to take on any projects, and the stack of books she’d given him lay unread on the floor next to his side of the bed. She knew he’d been avoiding them. The spines hadn’t even been cracked.

She sniffed, settled on a rerun of “A Baby Story” on TLC. It seemed appropriate (though why women got their pregnant tummies and enlarged breasts encased in plaster to paint and hang over their fireplaces was beyond her; how weird). She snuggled down into the pillows and pulled a soft blanket over her legs. When the phone rang, she reached out a hand, stretched to pick up the handset.

“Hello?”

“Tracy, dear, it’s Mom.”

“Mom.”

“How are you feeling, honey?”

“I’m fine, Mom.”

“Tracy.”

“What.”

“Just…have you given any thought to what the doctor said?”

“He didn’t say anything. The baby is perfectly healthy.”

“Well, honey, that’s not what Dan said.”

“Mom, who cares what Dan said. He’s barely putting forth any energy over this.”

Tracy snapped off another piece of toast. Crumbs scattered over the unmade bed.

“But, honey, Dan told me what the doctor said about the baby’s problems.”

“What problems? There are no problems.”

“Tracy. Are you listening to yourself? The baby has defects. Cerebral palsy. Who knows what else?”

“Defects? What kind of word is that, Mom? Jesus. No, she doesn’t. Leave me alone. I’m very busy right now, and I don’t have time to talk.”

“Wait, Tracy, please. I’m concerned about you. I just want to–”

Tracy clicked off the call and tossed the phone on the carpeted floor, just out of reach should someone else call. She was done talking for the day. The only one she felt like conversing with was her sweet little baby.

She watched the flickering screen before her, watched as a woman gave birth to a red, squalling newborn. That would be her in just a few weeks. She was giddy with anticipation. (Although her baby would come out plump and pink, just like in the movies.) She’d already spent hundreds of dollars online shopping for adorable little girl outfits. Satin dresses with frothy lace and matching bloomers. Pink and purple onesies in soft organic cotton. A turquoise tulle skirt with matching slippers. A pink terrycloth robe with a hood sporting hippo ears.

Now the computer sat on a tray in the corner of the bed, its screen black and blank. Dan had taken her credit cards, forbidden her to keep shopping for a baby he supposedly didn’t want. Said he didn’t want to take care of. Couldn’t understand why they hadn’t terminated the pregnancy when the test results came back.

Tracy wiped at the hot tears now streaming down her puffy cheeks and dropping off her chin into the folds of her neck. Their baby was going to be perfect. Just perfect.

Humming a lullaby, Tracy opened a jar of cocoa butter and rubbed it over her stretch marks.

“I love you, baby,” she whispered.

Then she puckered her lips and sent it a kiss.

Fifteen Minutes

The video camera blinked red; the lens whirred and focused. It was pointed toward a wall plastered with movie posters. A sliver of a bed dripping with dirty clothes was on the right. Mary Lou, curly hair in pigtails, lips puckered and berry painted, danced into view. She wore only a cropped white undershirt and spandex underwear with “slut” bedazzled on the back. She sucked on a cherry lollipop then drew it from her mouth with a loud pop.

“Hi, I’m Mary Lou! You should totally pick me to be on Real World because, like, I love to party, and, like, I’m a really good time. Seriously. Ask my friends.”

She turned around to wiggle her bottom at the camera.

“I’ve got a cute butt, and guys, like, totally love me. I love to go out to bars and see how many I can get to buy me drinks. Sometimes, I even like to play them against each other. You know, just to see if they’ll fight over me or buy me more drinks.”

She giggled, drawing her hands in fists under her chin. The lollipop left a smear of pink on her smooth skin.

“But, seriously, like, I don’t go home with them. I just like to play with them. I’m like a master manipulator or something. But I don’t believe in sex before marriage. Like, seriously, you guys. Seriously.”

She smiled flirtatiously at the camera.

“Oh, also, I’m a student at the local university, and I’m studying psychology. I seriously want to help people. I feel like that’s my calling in life. To, you know, like, reach out to others and help them be the people they want to be. Like I’m so happy with myself, you guys, and I just know that I could have a positive influence on others. I’m just that kind of person.

“Anyway, you should so pick me to be on your show! I’ll get crunk and mess around with a bunch of guys – but not go all the way! – and totally teach people how to accept themselves. Brandy and Sandy (my boobs, you guys!) will, like, totally thank you!”

She blew kisses at the camera then danced out of the frame, heels bouncing off her rounded tush.

The camera blinked off.

When the red light blinked on, the posters from the wall had been pulled down, rolled up and shoved under the bed along with the dirty clothes. Only a vase of bright poppies sitting on a white IKEA desk could be seen hovering at the edge of the frame.

When Mary Lou strutted into view, she wore strappy silver sandals and a floor-length sparkling black gown. Her hair, released from its pigtails, fell in soft and glossy waves to just below her exposed shoulders. The berry stain had been wiped off, replaced with a classic dark red wine lip color, and her brown eyes had been traced with black liner. Jewelry glinted at her wrist, her neck, her ears.

“Hello there. I’m Mary Lou, and I’m looking for love.”

She posed, turning her body slightly so as to appear slimmer, and placed a hand on her hip. Her toned arm reflected the glow from the lamp lit in the corner of the room.

“I’m looking for a man who’s strong and sensitive and who loves to cook meals together as much as he loves to watch Sunday football. Go Chiefs!”

She giggled coquettishly and assumed another pose, this time with hands at her sides, one foot placed slightly in front of the other and turned out.

“I love a man who’s smart and tough, who understands integrity and what it means to be devoted. It wouldn’t hurt if he had great muscles and a brilliant smile as well.”

She flashed whitened teeth at the camera and slowly winked, lowering a powdered lid.

“A little about me: I’m earning a master’s degree in psychology – I love working out what makes people tick – and I’m an animal lover. If I hadn’t gone to school for psychology, I would have studied veterinary science. I’m an only child, still close to my parents, and I love to be pampered. I am a queen looking for her king. Call me.”

She sauntered out of the frame, flicking a hand at the camera in goodbye.

The red light blinked out.

When it came back on, the camera faced a long hallway. Whatever prints had hung on the wall had been removed and stacked behind the tripod. A flurry of footsteps could be heard before Mary Lou stepped in front of the camera at the end of the corridor. Her strappy sandals had been replaced with black heeled boots, her dress with black leggings and a loose black tank top. Her hair hung straight down to the middle of her back and chunky bangs obscured tweezed eyebrows. She marched down to the camera, kicking out each leg like a horse before placing it in the middle of the carpet. Kick, place, kick, place, kick, place. Expression fierce, fierce, fierce.

She stopped in front of the camera, hip cocked and knee bent.

“I’m Mary Lou. I’m America’s Next Top Model. I had a crappy childhood, but I’ve made it this far on my own. I have my own place, my own car and my own cat. She’s my best friend. I’m kooky and intense, and no one messes with me. I’m putting myself through school, but I want to be a model. I will be a model. Pick me, Tyra. Pick me and fix me.”

She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, peeked up at the black lens through spiky lashes.

“You can make my dream come true. You’ll see me at the next casting session. I am America’s Next Top Model. Remember me.”

She pivoted on her heel, her sheath of hair swinging, and step-kicked her way back down the hall. She turned to give the camera one last glare then stalked into another room.

The lens whirred and closed. The camera light blinked off.