*This page displays consecutively, a short story in the works*
Part One – Helena
It’s a small smile, but enough to show me that her two front teeth overlap. She stands a distance from her mother’s side, trying desperately not to look at either of us.
“I’m sure Helena will be welcomed with open arms, Ms. Harris. In fact, I’ll see to it that she is.”
I smile warmly, but the girl blushes from head to toe and moves farther away. She absently pulls her hair, strand by strand, dropping each one to the floor as it comes out at the root and it’s suddenly clear why there are sparse patches scattered across her scalp.
“Helena, stop.” Her mother’s whisper is sharp. “Remember what I said.”
I didn’t think it was possible, but the girl turns a deeper shade of red and I can’t help but wonder if she’ll be alright here.
“Nothing to worry about.” I reassure her. “You’ll be fine.”
Ms. Harris’ lips tighten. She turns to Helena and brushes roughly at her blazer, pulls on her tie.
“Well Helena, I’m off. And for heaven’s sake, keep your hands out of your hair.” With that she walks away, leaving the girl gaping after her. No hug. Not so much as a good-bye.
“You’ve got lovely hair.” I tell her as we head into my office. I walk to the chair behind my desk. “It’s so straight.” I reach up to my own curly mop and laugh.
She stands until I ask her to sit.
“We’ll head to your class when you’re ready.” I offer when I notice her eyeing the door.
“Really? Because we can sit here for a while. Talk. There’s no rush.”
She pulls at her hair, adjusts her glasses and stands.
“No, I’d like to go now if that’s okay.”
The walk to Mr. Roy’s room is quiet, no one in the halls, just the sound of Helena’s loose laces slapping the floor.
“Your mother didn’t tell me much, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sorry about her. She’s like that.”
“Have you signed up for any of our teams? Or enrolled in the book club?”
“I suck at sports and book club is social suicide for someone like me. I don’t need any help being unpopular.” Her tone is well beyond her years.
We reach Mr. Roy’s door and Helena finally looks at me.
“I’m okay on my own.”
Several bracelets slide out from under her jacket sleeve and circle her thin wrist as she reaches for the doorknob.
“Absolutely no jewelry allowed. Yeah, I know. I read the rules before I got here.”
“Yes, you’re right, but what I was going to say is, you know where my office is if you need anything.”
She enters the classroom and from the hall I hear her say; “What are you lookin’ at? Never seen a baldy, four-eyed, new girl before?”
I think of Ms. Harris and how Helena had stood so far away from her. How her mother had been so rough, how she hadn’t said good-bye. I think of her tight lips and her stern whisper and I know now, Helena has always been okay on her own.
Part Two – Gladys
Ms. Harris perches at a small table, rolling melting ice cubes around in her short glass, vacantly staring in the direction of the empty chair across. Her lips purse as she surrenders to the realization he isn’t going to show…again.
“One more round, Gladys?”
It’s why she comes here. They know she’s not done, but are polite enough to ask as though she might be.
“Absolutely, Damien. Just one more.”
“I’ve decided I won’t be here long.”
He gives the empty seat the same look she had, nods and heads to the bar.
Gladys. She’s never loved her name. Never understood how someone could look into a tiny newborn’s face and choose Gladys, but still, she prefers it to Ms. Harris. She’d been tempted many times over the years to return to her maiden name, but couldn’t bear to be separated from Helena, even if only by title.
She adjusts her blouse and crosses her legs.
They certainly did not need to add different surnames to the long list of things they didn’t have in common. Besides, it would seem their name is all that held them together at times and Gladys never took that for granted.
She picks up her phone. No messages. She’s not surprised. He’s never had any respect.
Tempted to text her daughter, she puts the phone in her bag. The last thing Helena had said to her before entering the school this morning was; ‘I’m fine. Stay out of it.”
And, she’d tried. All these years she had tried to stay out of it, but had never quite managed. Had never had a choice. He’d made sure of that.
Damien returns with a whiskey on the rocks. Her second. And her last for today. Despite being unwanted, she’d be there waiting for Helena to emerge once the school day was done.
Eying up the shot, she waits for the ice to weaken the sting.
Part Three – Mrs. Statton
“We got a new girl today.” Her blade presses through the taught, red skin. “She’s a bit tragic, I think.”
“And what makes you think that?” Rick asks, sipping his wine, eyes widening over the rim of his glass.
“Well, I’m not sure, really. She just seems so…independent.”
“And independent translates to tragic for you?” His eyes get even bigger.
“Okay, maybe she’s not tragic. Maybe her situation is tragic.”
“So, what’s her situation, exactly?”
Juice mists her fingers as the red pepper splits into halves and falls open on the cutting board.
“God, I don’t really know that either, I guess. Her mother didn’t tell us much.”
“Well, I think one of us is drunk Steph, cuz I don’t get it.” He grins and pours himself another.
Stephanie contemplates the thinning hair and mangle of bracelets, her easy blush and the eagerness to get the usually dreaded classroom antics out of the way.
“Honestly, there isn’t an issue to speak of. I just felt this, I dunno, gap between her and her mother. And Helena, well, she’s…ugh, okay I’m going back to the first thing – tragic.”
“But, is she hip?” Rick asks, swirling his wine.
She begins to answer before realizing he’s taking a stab, slipping in a joke about his once favorite band.
“Ha ha. You’re just hilarious.”
Rick circles the granite island and wraps his arms around her from behind.
“Steph, like you said, this Helena is…what was it? Independent? I’m pretty sure she’d want for you to enjoy your Friday night. Not to be thinking about her. I can guarantee she’s not thinking about you right now. Besides, your man here is gettin’ All Tore Up over the smell of that sauce.” He squeezes her a little tighter.
She pretends not to notice his second ‘Hip’ reference.
Helena lies on the floor of her room, the pile of hair growing beside her, and wonders if Mrs. Statton will notice she’s added two new bracelets to her wrist.
Part Four – Eat Crow
It’s just like any other day, Gladys decides as she applies her mascara, lifting each lash to its fullest extent. She fills the arch of her brow and shimmers her cheekbones before taking another sip of her lukewarm coffee.
Except it isn’t really. Today, she won’t be there to pick Helena up from school. She won’t be home to make dinner. And she may not even be back to watch the season finale of True Detective.
Her tummy does a bit of a flip. She smooths down the front of her blouse, smacks her lips and heads for the kitchen. After chucking her half full mug in the sink, she rummages through her purse and manages to round up sixteen dollars. Quickly scrawling something to the effect of get whatever this will buy you for dinner on a piece of scrap paper, Gladys takes one swig from the flask tucked behind the empty fridge and heads for the door.
Lying at the bottom of a stack of paperwork that’s taken me through ‘til nearly lunchtime, I come across a cluster of pages stapled together, sporting a hot pink Post-it. It’s covered with Mr. Crawford’s loosely looped handwriting – Stephanie, You need to read this, he advises. It’s a doozy.
I glance wistfully at the clock on the wall across from my desk. As tempted as I am to dive into the text, I know I don’t have time. I scan my calendar for a prompt on my lunch appointment and am reminded of what an unfortunate name Mr. Anass is for a high school Principal.
As the school Counselor, I’ve seen my fair share of varied troubling data, but have never been passed a student essay before. I sigh. It’ll have to wait. I tuck it into my briefcase, take a sip from my water bottle and set out to Manger Corbeau, where Anass will be waiting. During the drive I muse over the possible scenarios that could have led to naming the restaurant Eat Crow, but fail to come up with anything plausible.
It makes sense that it’s Anass’ favorite place to eat.
Part Five – No Sinead
Helena picks at the jagged piece of blue vinyl poking up from the empty side of her bus seat. Sure, Gladys had driven that first day of school, but now that her duty’s done, Helena is on her own. She doesn’t mind. She’d taken a long, hot shower this morning and had the mirror all to herself. Gladys, apparently long gone, had texted her to point out the obvious – bananas on counter, yogurt in fridge.
Forgoing sustenance, Helena had instead wrapped her slight fingers around the thick white handle of the carafe on the counter and poured herself a cup of steamy black coffee.
Now, her collar damp from her still wet hair, she shivers as the bus ride makes the liquid roll in her stomach.
Pulling the cord, she gets off at the stop before the one closest to the school and inhales before venturing on. She’d done something. Something that had seemed like a good idea. Well, not a good idea maybe so much as something she hadn’t been able to stop. The secrets had poured from her fast and furious, like the coffee out of the pot, dark and scalding. And now it’s too late. There they are, black and bitter.
Her bag pulls at her shoulder as she walks and her hair begins to sway as it starts to dry. She can smell the shampoo Gladys buys in the huge blue tub wafting in the breeze. Although the sun is out she shivers again, the damp now reaching the middle of her back.
Unaware of her fingers, she twists and twirls several strands before choosing just the right one to pluck from the bunch.
“You should leave some on your head,” a voice from behind her calls out. “Most people look better with hair.”
“Not interested.” Helena answers and keeps walking.
“Well, except maybe Sinead O’Connor. I have to admit she’s hot bald. A little old now maybe, but still…hot.”
Without turning around, Helena replies; “Like I said, I’m not interested in what you think of me or Sinead or our hair. Piss off.”
“Well, pick away then,” the voice continues. “But fair warning – you’re no Sinead.”
Part Six – Joplin and A Java
Smoke shrouds her shaky, short pink fingernails, curls up past her nose and out the open window into the blue of the great big sky. Her view turns murky as she shoots a smooth, straight line at the windshield in front of her.
Joplin booms. Gladys signals left.
And baby deep down in your heart I guess you know that it ain’t right,
Never, never, never, never, never, never hear me when I cry at night…
The waitress looks disappointed. The place is empty. This will likely be her only chance at a tip ‘til lunchtime.
“Just the coffee then?” Her pencil is poised hopefully over a badgered notepad.
With the waitress gone, the sun glares into Gladys’ face and without the breeze, it’s incredibly warm. She shifts to the other side of the booth. Her stomach, a mind of its own, doesn’t follow. Her hands flutter like an indecisive butterfly, mimicking the thoughts flying through her mind.
She’d promised herself a sole slug, so it was important to wait for the cup to land in front of her. If she sipped straight from the flask, she’d want another in no time. She’d wait. She could wait.
The cup does eventually come, full to the rim. She’d forgotten that black meant no room for cream. She tips a little more than she should out onto the saucer and, as discreetly as possible, adds a generous pour into the steaming liquid. Her eyes close as the sharp vapor reaches her nostrils.
And, she sips.
But, it’s gone before she’s even had time to think. Time to decide why she’s really here. Time to convince herself that she shouldn’t just turn around and go home.
She could go home.
She could sit on the couch with her book and sip away. She could make beans and toast. She could watch True Detective. She could talk to Helena.
Take another little piece of my heart now, baby.
Oh, oh, break it!
Break another little bit of my heart now, darling…
Gladys looks for the waitress. She’ll pay her check. Get back in the car. Drive.
She spots her over by the register, posing herself in such a way that the cook can ogle her without much effort.
Where is Damien when I need him? Gladys wonders as she heads for the till.
Part Seven – Ringer
Anass knows by her ring that she’s fairly newly wed. It’s one of those made to look antiques every fresh bride he’s come across in the last five years wears but it’s platinum rather than yellow gold and a baguette setting instead of a solitaire. It’s loose on her finger and he watches her twisting it back and forth. Her nails are freshly polished and shine like a display case boasting a precious jewel.
“When exactly did you become aware of this?” He asks, leaning in a little too far.
“You’ve known since Friday and you’re only telling me now?”
Mrs. Statton’s face prickles with heat and she’s not sure if it’s the embarrassment or frustration.
“I found it just before our lunch meeting but I was running late, so I threw it in my briefcase,” she pauses. “And, well, I’ll admit I forgot about it over the weekend. I didn’t open my bag again until this morning.”
“I don’t have to tell you the problems this could have caused for the school should something have happened.”
“I would have been late for Manger Corbeau if I’d have read it then. You said twelve-thirty sharp, remember?” Mrs. Statton leans in to meet him in the middle. “And we all know how you hate to wait, Mr. Anass.”
Anass backs off, if only slightly.
“And frankly, I think Mr. Crawford could have done more than throw it in a basket full of paperwork and walk away, don’t you?” Stephanie smiles her sweetest smile.
“So, if anyone is responsible for potentially causing problems for the school, Mr. Anass, I think Crawford should be considered.” She leans in even further, ensuring he has a clear view of the bright blue V-neck she’d pulled over her matching bra this morning.
“Mmm,” Rick had murmured as he watched her dress. “Come back to bed.”
Mr. Anass clears his throat.
“Yes. Yes, I’ll be chatting with Crawford as well.” His voice shakes a touch but he recovers quickly. “However, in the meantime, let’s you and I discuss strategy.”
As Stephanie walks down the hall back to the safety of her office, she tries to shudder off what she and some of the young, female teachers have to come to call “Whatanass’ Circadian Spurt.”
Once inside she breaks her own open door policy and drops the essay on her desk with an uncertain sigh.
Part Eight – Bitty
Helena chooses a seat at the very end, as far away from everyone as possible and right next to the window. As she swings her bag across the table and onto the chair in front of her, a familiar voice disrupts any peace she thought she might be able to steal.
“Bags don’t get a seat. House rules.”
“And rules were made to be broken.” Helena replies without looking up.
“Do you really believe that, or are you on autopilot?” The voice asks, moving to stand in plain view.
Helena is forced to look at her. Small and plain, the girl’s perfectly trimmed hair runs up and around the curves of her ears and the long pieces in front are swept to one side, revealing her dark, dramatically arched brows. Her thickly feathered lashes cast shadows on her sun-covered cheeks and her tiny nose barely pushes out past her top lip.
“Autopilot’s kind of what I do.” Helena uses her fork to make bruise patterns across the withered leaves of lettuce on her plate.
“Bitty,” the girl says as she sits down next to the illegally parked backpack. Seeing a vague look of disbelief cross Helena’s face, she says; “It’s short for Bettina.”
“Oh. Okay well, Helena.” Helena surrenders reluctantly.
“Not sure that suits you,” she says. “I think I’ve finally come to accept you as a Sinead.”
“I have way more hair.”
“Yeah, I guess I was right the first time around. You’re a Sinead like I’m a Bettina.”
“Bitty it is.” Helena agrees.
As Bitty turns her face towards the window, Helena tries to make out the tiny tattoo behind her left ear.
Part Nine – Billy’s Bait Bunker
Coffee rumbles in her otherwise empty tummy and Gladys takes her hand off the wheel to try and settle it. The building’s roof is slightly lopsided and the hand painted sign is in need of a fresh lick. As she takes a long drag and blows it out the open window, she tries to remind herself that these damn e-cigs are supposedly saving her life and that her life is apparently more important than her sanity.
A rusty groan fills the weighted air as the door to Billy’s Bait Bunker opens and a trail of dust shrouds a surly looking trucker carrying a couple of rods and a brown paper bag out to his grimy long haul.
It’s the perfect spot for the little shack, now a much-anticipated destination by truckers from all over the country. Billy’s Bait Bunker carries everything drivers need to catch and cook themselves a fish supper while camping out at the local riverside. It’s considered a relaxing break in the middle of a week long run and a welcome change from the watered down coffee and greasy omelettes they’re used to. And being located off a back road known mainly to those rolling through the dark of night, of course he always has a little something extra hiding behind the counter for his longtime loyal patrons.
No sooner has the dust settled than the driver pulls out, kicking up another mini cyclone in his wake. Gladys waits out the storm before heading inside.
The cluster of tin cans hanging over the door doesn’t even faze her. She keeps her eyes steady on the graying, warped floorboards until she hears his sigh coming out of the back room. It is however, when he leans his elbows on the countertop and drizzles his sandy voice over her that she feels weak at the knees.
“What’ll it be, Gladys? My money or my life?”
Part Ten – An Ass
She’d seen Helena in the cafeteria today. She was talking to a petite girl with short, dark hair. Bettina, Stephanie thought her name was, but couldn’t be a hundred percent sure. The room was bustling and Helena and her friend were on the other side of it, mere blurs amongst the crowd.
She takes another long sip of her wine, sets it on the low coffee table, and allows the mouthful to wash over the lump in her throat as she swallows.
Watching from across the room what has now become familiar, the unconscious twisting and turning of the hair, the swoop of her long neck and the band of bracelets that has widened since her arrival make the second reading of the essay in Stephanie’s hand even more haunting somehow. The carefully selected words produce an ease and flow contrary to the torment of choosing them. It’s apparent the open wounds and blunt truths had dropped sharply onto the page, and only then were smoothed by a cohesive, composed mind. If it weren’t so painful it would be breathtakingly beautiful.
She sets the curled pages down onto the empty cushion next to her and reaches for her glass.
“Anass came on to to me again.” She divulges, swirling her drink.
Rick lifts his head off the couch, eyebrows raised, forehead wrinkled.
“Did you tell him you’re taken?”
“Very funny, darling. You and I have only been together at every Christmas party and staff picnic for the last five years. He knows.”
Rick lets out a big yawn, flips onto his side and takes his phone out of his pocket. Sensing her silence begs a response, he sighs.
“Are you sure he hit on you? What did he do?”
“Well, he leaned in.”
“Yeah, you know…”
All of a sudden she feels silly, flustered.
“Never mind,” she concedes. “It was nothing.” But when she looks to him for reassurance, he’s scrolling through his messages and smirking at whatever’s on his screen, unaware they are still in conversation.
Stephanie picks up the essay and holds it in front of her face – a barrier between them. Whether it be the wine, Rick’s disinterest or Helena’s aching words, a brew of all three she assumes, the lump in her throat turns to hot streams running down her cheeks.
She’ll call Helena to her office first thing.
Part Eleven – I Get Half
“Neither if you begged me, William.” Gladys says with a strength she summons from somewhere deep within.
He’s still behind the counter, but stands up straight now, staring her down with eyes that, after all these years, still feel like icepicks pecking at her chest.
Apart from the two of them, the shack is empty. A static-distorted radio floats an Eagles song through the saloon style doors and she realizes he’s humming it under his breath. He always did know how to unnerve her.
“I’ve been trying to reach you. Did you change your numbers or something?”
“Nope. Not in fifteen years.” He says smugly.
“That means you’ve simply been ignoring me, then.”
He shrugs, maintaining eye contact and continuing to hum.
“Been busy, Gladys. What can I say?”
She looks around the dusty, vacant room.
“Sorry. You could say sorry.” She feels her face prickling as a rush of blood makes its way to the surface of her thin skin.
“Sorry for what?” His humming has stopped and his arms are now folded across his narrow chest. “For giving you what you wanted?”
“This is isn’t how I wanted it, Will. You know that.”
“You’re better off, Gladys. No me to mess things up.”
“We were working on that.”
“You were working on that.”
Gladys looks at the floor. He’s right. He had never had any interest in changing. Standing here with him now may as well have been fifteen years ago. Time had done nothing to him. He hadn’t even aged for God’s sake. His tanned skin is rugged and vibrant and his salt and pepper hair feathers down over his ears, swooping the nape of his neck, making him appear both boyish and sophisticated all at once.
What must he see…deepened crow’s feet and tiny veins beginning to burst around her nose, her hair wiry now that she has to cover rapidly sprouting greys and a well-weathered cleavage line peeking out from the V-neck t-shirt she’d chosen that morning.
She allows these thoughts to distract her, but not for more than a moment.
“I need you to sign, William. It’s the only reason I’m here.”
“Got time for one more? It gets pretty lonely ‘round here.”
She mustn’t look as bleak as she believes.
“You’ve never had any trouble finding company and I’m sure that hasn’t changed either.”
It’s his turn to look away and she almost thinks she sees shame cross his face.
“My social life stopped being your concern years ago.” His voice is hard.
“I’m not getting into it, Will. Not interested. I’m tired. No, exhausted. Just sign and be done with it.”
“I ain’t signin’ nothin”. All’s I need is black and white proof I’m a douchebag. She already hates me.”
“How would you know? It’s not like you’ve ever bothered to ask her.”
“Children don’t hate, William. Their hearts just crack right down the middle.”
Part Twelve – Marked
“I was the butt of a joke once,” Bitty explains when Helena finally gets the nerve to ask.
She squints once more at the almost microscopic letters. She’s never seen anything like it and although she has a pretty good view from the bus seat behind Bitty’s, the ink is so tightly tucked behind her left ear that Helena wouldn’t have been able to make it out if she hadn’t just been told what it said.
“Why would you want a tattoo to remind you of that?” She almost bites her tongue as the words pop out of her mouth. She sounds so judgmental.
“It’s important to me.” As Bitty turns to look out the window the moment, much like the tattoo, vanishes.
Left with only the hum of the bus between them as lampposts and cracked sidewalks whiz by, Helena twists her hair, trying to think of something to say.
“I don’t have any.”
“Well, both are overrated, if you ask me.” Bitty declares.
“It just seems so permanent. I’d be sick of what I’d picked within a month. Some stupid doodle or saying or something. At least yours seems exotic.”
“Well, mysterious, I guess. Kind of like a foreign word no one’s ever heard of.”
“I’m sure some people get it.”
“Anyway, you can get rid of them now. With a laser or something.”
“I hear it leaves a scar.”
Helena’s fingers comb through her band of bangles, straightening them into tidy lines that bump up against one another.
“I’d rather have an ugly tattoo than an ugly scar to keep me in check.” Bitty says.
“You know. Lather. Rinse. Do no repeat.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’s not the marks,” Helena says with more understanding than she cares to admit. “It’s why they’re there, that’s ugly.”
Part Thirteen – Little Puppet
Anass tries to win her over with his stare. She can see his upside down reflection in the shiny surface of her newly cleaned desk, but refuses to look up and make eye contact. She’d stayed an extra hour after school yesterday to sort through paperwork and tidy her office after leaving a message for Ms. Harris to come in at her earliest convenience. She’d planned on calling Helena down as soon as the bell rang, but Mr. Anass descended upon her before she could even brew her morning tea.
“Honestly, I think it’ll go more smoothly if we’re alone.” A waterfall of fingers cascades over Anass’ boggy image. “I just think she’ll be more open about things.”
“That may be so, but I am the Principal of the school, Stephanie. I should be here.”
“And what good will that do if she won’t talk?”
“You don’t know she won’t talk. You’re assuming.”
Her skin crawls with the familiar frustration of Anass’ obstinate disposition. She’d been here many times with him and wasn’t about to back down on this one.
“I offer counseling to kids, Rupert. It only works when there’s trust. I’ve built that up, you haven’t.”
“They like me just fine.”
Stephanie suppresses the urge to make what will most likely be an offensive sound.
“You’re right. You are the Principal. And because of that, they avoid you at all costs.”
She gets ready to wield her last resort, the student/counselor confidentiality speech, but there’s no need. As Anass stands, his defeated physique slumps like a blow-up doll with a slow leak.
“Alright Steph, you win. But dinner at Manger next week.”
“You know I’m…”
“There are details to discuss, not to mention some upcoming cuts you might be interested in. Always good to stay in the loop.”
He leaves a trail of musk in his wake and Stephanie, reading between his lines.
Part Fourteen – You Are
It doesn’t take Helena long to realize Bitty knows nobody. The youth hostel has let her reinvent the meaning of a temporary stay, she goes to school only when she can and talks to no one.
“Why me?” Helena asks carefully.
“Why you, what?”
“Why did you talk to me? You don’t seem to talk to anyone.”
“I wanted to find out where you get your hair done.”
They are sitting on the very thin mattress that covers the very basic bed Bitty sleeps in. There are four wooden drawers built roughly into the underside of the bed, a sink screwed into the wall and a hook on the back of the door.
“Where do you keep all your stuff?”
She hops off the bed and opens the four drawers. All are empty but one. Helena takes in its contents. A clear plastic bag that has seen better days contains a toothbrush and a travel size tube of toothpaste. There’s an ancient looking pair of clippers and a comb, two worn looking hand towels, a few pairs of underwear, socks, a plain black t-shirt and a pair of jeans.
Helena has to stop herself from asking if this is it. If this is all Bitty owns in the whole entire world.
“How do you afford this?”
They look at each other and an understanding passes between them. An appreciation that this isn’t all that much. That in the big world, this is less than nothing, but that in Bitty’s world, it’s everything.
“I groom dogs.” She tells me after sitting back down on the bed. “I go to people’s houses and I actually wash, trim and clip their dogs.”
“I’m serious. It’s amazing. Do you like it?”
“I love it. The dogs are awesome. I can’t believe people pay me to do it. I mean, why wouldn’t they just do it themselves?”
“Lots of reasons, I guess. My neighbors have a dog and they even pay someone to walk it.”
“Crazy, right? I get paid to play with pups. Every kid’s dream.”
“You should start offering the walking thing. You could double your money.”
“Maybe. I’m already having a tough time fitting in school and homework around having a pseudo job.”
“I guess you cut your own hair?”
“Gee, thanks. Is it that obvious?”
“Now you shut up. Look who you’re talking to.”
Helena’s hands rush up to feel her patchy scalp.
“I’m asking because it’s so perfect. So even. Clearly you’ve had the opportunity to practice. Besides, I saw the clippers in your drawer.”
“You’re right. I am amazing.”
“Nice try, but that comment was about your gig, not you.”
Bitty lies back on her flat pillow and lifts her legs up to rest on the wall in front of her.
“Admit it, Harris. “I’m the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen.”
Part Fifteen- Shake Down
She doesn’t see a doorbell, so instead knocks a somewhat non-committal knock, half hoping it won’t be heard. She’d called from the office before leaving but no one answered. Stopping in on her way home, potentially catching someone off-guard was risky and she is no longer sure she’s made the right decision.
She stands in the cool evening breeze and waits. A minute or two passes before she hears someone shuffling toward the door. Her heart rebounds off the wall of her chest as the fingers on the other side twist the bolt.
Helena looks softer standing in the doorway of her own home than she does in the school’s halls. Her scant hair is pulled into a loose and low ponytail and she’s wearing what Stephanie hears the girls refer to as a onesie on their scheduled pajama days.
“Mrs. Statton.” Helena’s face flushes.
“I’m sorry, Helena. I did call, but…”
“Oh, I uh. Well, I was in the shower earlier.”
Stephanie can indeed smell the apple body wash hanging in the air between them and Helena’s face is dewy from a recent douse of cream.
“Is your mother home?”
“No. She wasn’t here when I got in from school. Don’t know where she went though. Or when she’ll be back.”
“Ahh, I see.”
They stand awkwardly, Stephanie trying to decide what to say next, Helena unsure where to put her hands seeing as her hair is tied back and there are no pockets in the onesie.
“Could I maybe come in?”
An instant flash of hard hallway Helena.
“So we can talk.”
“Or we could go grab a milkshake. You know, if you’re willing to unpeel.” Stephanie smiles, eyeing up Helena’s sleep suit.
“I don’t have any money. I bought dinner and stuff. Me and Bitty…”
“Oh no, honey. I’m buying. You just worry about what you’re going to choose.”
Part Sixteen – My My, Sharona
Gladys inhales deeply. Even the measly electronic cig manages to get her blood pumping in her euphoria. Sure she’d had to stoop to a little rub and tug, but what was that compared to what she scored in return? No skin off her nose and certainly nothing she hadn’t resorted to before to get what she wanted out of William.
Her drive home is long and smooth. She dangles her arm out her open window the entire way, while tune after tune has her singing at the top of her lungs.
It isn’t until darkness falls that familiar landmarks start to appear. She flashes left and pulls into a mini-mart close to home. Her mood still light, she decides she’ll bring home mojos and a tub of fudge ice cream – two of Helena’s favorite things.
Entering the market, she dials home hoping to talk to Helena, but has to leave a message instead.
Probably in the shower, she thinks. Where does that kid ever go?
She strolls through the aisles, still humming and putting a little more in her basket than she initially intended. She hasn’t eaten all day. She doesn’t count the coffee and odd nip of whiskey.
Her last sip had been at the bait shop just before taking care of business with Will. She’d excused herself and crouched on the grody toilet lid in the stunted rotting bathroom, taking not one, but two large burning slugs from her flask. For good measure, she’d swiped some over her hands once back in her car, thinking it couldn’t hurt.
She grabs some potato chips. Salt and vinegar, they both like those. And a few bananas and a tub of yogurt out of guilt.
“Ms. Harris! You’re in late tonight.”
She looks at Sharona, a cashier she usually tries to avoid. Strange girl. Always fishing for gossip and a nosy twit by Gladys’ standards.
“Yeah, I guess it is late, Sharona. Whaddya know?”
“Oh, funny you should ask! I actually did hear something interesting tonight.”
The beeps from her scanner punch the air as she slowly slides each item over it. Gladys can see the ice cream is already starting to melt.
Sharona pauses for encouragement. Sensing none, she manages to muster up the enthusiasm to continue on her own.
“The high school. Some kinda trouble tonight.” She squints at the bag of mojos, frustrated its barcode won’t scan. “Yeah, there was a cop in here earlier. Got the last doughnut and the dregs from the coffee urn just before the deli shut down. Heard the call on his walkie. Cuz he paid at my till, right?”
“Are you asking me?”
She ignores Gladys’ snipe snip and types in the crumpled barcode by hand, her nails clicking loudly on the keys.
“Turned it off though, before I could hear the whole thing. Guess I looked too interested.” She raises her over-tweezed eyebrows expecting praise. Confirmation she’d done well.
No longer anxious about her melting ice cream, Gladys pays and rushes to her car, fumbling for her keys.
Why isn’t Helena answering the phone?
Part Seventeen – Define Crap
Helena sits in the mint colored booth, dressed in a flannel plaid shirt and jeans that most women Mrs. Statton’s age would consider tights. She moves the straw around slowly through her vanilla shake and waits for what she knows is the inevitable question.
“So, how long have you liked reading?”
Helena’s brow instantly furrows. It’s not what she was expecting.
“The first day we met, you said Book Club would be social suicide for you. There’s a difference between that answer and simply saying you’re not into reading.”
Helena’s furrow turns to a blush.
“I duuno. I’ve always liked reading. Since I was little. Probably ever since I could, I guess.”
“I enjoy reading too. It gets me away from my real life crap.”
The word crap, coming from Mrs. Statton, surprises Helena yet again but she recovers quickly.
“Well, it’s probably not your idea of crap, but there’s definitely crap.”
Stephanie’s sip leaves a faint strawberry smear on her lower lip, which she licks away instinctively. She’s starting to perspire despite the cool air of the ice cream shop and hopes Helena can’t detect her discomfort.
“Speaking of crap, maybe we should discuss the essay you handed in to Mr. Crawford.”
“Oh, okay. So an F.”
Helena hangs her head, embarrassed at having put herself out there only to receive a failing grade. She should’ve known better. She did know better.
“God, no.” Again the counselor is bold, using language not common for school admin. Their eyes meet and Helena has to look away, realizing in the moment, that Mrs. Statton knows everything. Knows all her crap.
“It’s just,” Stephanie plays with her wobbly wedding ring. “When a student writes about something like that, it’s our responsibility to follow up on it.”
“Our? Who else has read it?” Helena doesn’t have time to mask her panic-stricken face.
“Well, Mr. Crawford, of course. But when that type of material is passed to me, it’s my duty to bring it to Mr. Anass’ attention as well.”
Helena cringes and her hand flies up to her hair. She’s disliked Anass since shaking his sweaty, flimsy hand in front of the office that first day and has done everything possible to stay off his radar until this. She somehow hadn’t understood the big picture upon handing in her essay and sitting here now, she’s baffled by her own naiveté. Anger surfaces at having brought herself into the forefront, the opposite of where she likes to be.
“I’m sorry,” Stephanie starts to apologize, “I had to. But, I’ve told him I’ll deal with it from…” A shrill chime cuts her off mid-sentence.
“I have to go.” Her face looks pained. “I can drop you…actually, no, I think you should come with me.”
Helena has little choice but to follow behind her counselor, wondering why in the world she’d ever put pen to paper.
“Anyway,” says Stephanie, rushing to get to her car. “I have no choice but to bring your mother into the loop too, but I wanted to talk to you first.”
Her mother. Gladys is the one thing Helena had kept to herself. After all, that wasn’t her crap to tell.
Part Eighteen – Empty
The gray, floor length sheers billow with the force of the floor vent below them as Gladys opens the front door. She pauses. Other than the curtains, there’s no movement in the house. No sound. No Helena.
Her heart flaps.
She shouldn’t have been away so long. She should have left more food in the fridge. She shouldn’t have left her to her own devices. Maybe she should have told her where she was going…why she was going. Or better yet, brought Helena with her.
Unsure, she tiptoes to the kitchen counter to set the groceries down. The crumple from the bags scratches against the silence and suddenly, she feels like she’s wearing a buttoned-up raincoat on a hot day. Trapped sweat makes its way down her back as the realization that she must check Helena’s room engulfs her.
Blurry images of a face, glossy-eyed with blue-lined lips, pool at the bottom of Gladys’ spine soaking into the waistband of her jeans. Swills of pills, strewn bottles, creased sheets and dangling fingers wade through her watery mind. Flashes of flowers and cascades of cards, torrents of tears and wallows of whiskey wash over her, muddling at her feet.
She puts the signed papers on the counter beside one of the brown sacs and sits on the cool of the waxy tiles. She’d almost made it. So close only to have it whipped away. In an instant. The reason she’s still here. The reason she still tries. The reason she’s still a Harris, withdrawn.
But she remembers Sharona. Her tale of the policeman and his walkie talkie.
Gladys heaves her heaviness off the floor and flies to the answering machine, fumbling to push the stiff play button with its insistent flashing light.
No, she won’t find Helena in her bed. There will only be the aching, hollow space where she had once been.
Part Nineteen – The End
Gladys can see what looks like the school Principal standing outside the doorway of the hospital room. He almost looks like he’s on watch – him against whatever dares try and make its way in.
But when she finally makes her way down the long, glossy corridor, Gladys can see that Mr. Anass is anything but on guard. His eyes are moist and his cheeks, slack. His face is so forlorn it immediately brings tears to Gladys’ eyes.
“Good evening, Ms. Harris.”
Gladys can’t help but think that referring to it as good is pushing it.
“Hello, Mr. Anass. I didn’t expect to see you here.”
He looks at the floor.
“Well, school business and everything.”
It’s clear to Gladys that that end of things could have been dealt with elsewhere, would’ve already been taken care of. He has no need to be here. Anass is here because he’s chosen to be.
“Yeah, I guess that puts you in the middle, doesn’t it. I’m sorry about that.”
“No, no. I, uh, am happy to be…” He stops. “Happy is the wrong word. I’m thankful to be of some service.”
“Can I go in?”
“Helena’s in there.” He gestures with his head towards the door behind him. “Under normal circumstances, it’s just immediate family, but since that’s not possible…”
They exchange a glance and Gladys swallows past the lump in her throat before reaching out to push open the dense yellow door.
It’s quiet in the room until a sharp beep from the life support machine pierces the air. Bitty lies still in the bed apart from the small, slow rise and fall of her chest under the delicate, light blue sheet. Her face is bruised and swollen. Her eyes sharp slits, her hands at her sides, cut and battered.
‘Shit,” breathes Gladys.
“She’s in a coma.” Helena whispers.
“What the hell happened?”
“Good evening, Ms. Harris.”
Again, with the good crap.
“My name is Stephanie Statton. We’ve met before. I’m sure you remember. And I’ve called a couple of times as well…left messages on your machine.”
The tall willow of a woman rises from her chair in the dark corner and takes a step towards her, extending her right hand, which Gladys shakes distractedly.
“What is going on? What’s happened to this poor girl? Who is she?”
“My friend.” Helena says dryly. “She’s my only friend.”
“I should explain, Ms. Harris.”
“Damn right, you should explain. You had me thinking it might be my daughter in this bed. Your message was so unclear.”
“I really do apologize. I was…well, I was panicked, quite frankly, but you’re right. I should have left more detail.”
Gladys looks at Helena and her heart swells. She’s okay. Still here. Still hers.
“I happened to be with Helena when the call came in. I knew she and Bettina had become friendly and I thought, considering Helena’s circumstances…and I guess, Bettina’s, that she should come along.”
Mrs. Statton reaches into her bag and slides Helena’s essay out of one of the pockets.
“This is what I’ve been calling you about. I don’t know how much you’re aware of.”
“Okay,” Gladys lets out a frustrated sigh. “I’m not sure this is the time or the place. This poor girl,” she points towards Bitty’s beaten body, “is obviously fighting for her life.”
“She tried to end her life.” Helena says quietly.
“What? She did this to herself?”
“Well, no.” Mrs. Statton begins to explain. “It’s more complicated than that. Please bear with me. I’m only just piecing it all together myself through what I’m hearing from the police. Bettina has been…”
“Bitty,” Helena croaks. “She’s Bitty. Not Bettina.”
Mrs. Statton takes a breath.
“Yes, you’re right. Bitty has been on her own for some time. She used the address of a house where she dog sits occasionally to register for school, but doesn’t actually live there, we’ve since found out. She lives in a hostel. Pays for it through the dog grooming and I guess, the occasional sitting job.”
“She’s all on her own? No family?”
“Another piece we’re learning.” Mrs. Statton advises. “Her mother threw her out when an Uncle, and that title is questionable, got too close to Betti…Bitty. She never went back.”
“I don’t get it. Why this…now?”
“Her mother.” Helena says, still staring at Bitty.
“Her mother?” Gladys is even more baffled.
“Her mother came looking for her.” Mrs. Statton’s voice is working hard at sounding calm. “The Uncle finally ditched her and she decided Bitty was to blame. But Bitty wasn’t having it and when the mom realized she was being challenged she went off the deep end. Beat her daughter senseless, right there in the hostel room. Apparently slammed her face into the porcelain sink.” Stephanie gives up the battle and her voice breaks. “She took some cash from the room before she left, but what she didn’t realize was that a bottle of Vicodin had fallen out of her purse.”
“She swallowed every pill.” Helena is bent at the waist, twisting her hair, a shadow of a mass forming at her feet.
“God, it’s so awful I can’t even imagine.” Gladys looks from Mrs. Statton to Helena. “But I’m sorry. I still don’t understand the connection with Helena, other than, as you say, they’ve become friendly.”
Mrs. Statton looks to Helena and gets what Gladys deems as permission.
“Ms. Harris, do you know why Helena wears those bracelets?”
Confusion passes over Gladys’ features.
“She likes them? I mean…I know I bought one of them for her at the Dollarama. That one with the crosses. Remember Helena?”
“I remember.” Helena does not look up.
“Ms. Harris, she uses the bracelets to cover a scar. A scar I’m guessing you’re unaware of.”
“A scar? What kind of scar? Helena, what did you do?”
“Nothing. I stopped. I fixed it.” She finally looks away from Bitty and Gladys can see that this is about so much more than bracelets and scars.
“You got stuck with me. You think I don’t know, but I do.”
“Helena, I was never…”
“He left me.” She chokes, her quiet demeanor vanishing. He left me and he left you with me…with no choice.
“There’s always a choice, honey.”
“You drink because of me!” Helena is now pulling hair out by the tufts.
“Helena, I drink because of him. You’re the reason I don’t drink more.”
“Why would you want me? Helena practically screeches. “Why would I stick around for this?” She stands and her arms open at her sides, palms facing the ceiling in defiant question, bracelets swinging with the force of her movement. “You’re not even my mother.”
Mrs. Statton tries to quell the sound of her sharp breath.
The long, vertical scar on the underside of Helena’s wrist becomes visible and no one speaks for a moment. Even in her frenzy, Helena is aware that she and Gladys now share the wound.
Gladys swallows. Her mouth is dry and there is a pounding at her temples, a bellow for alcohol. Her hands shake as she takes the now slightly rumpled documents from her purse.
“I am your mother, Helena. He signed. Today.”
Helena pulls her flannel shirt tight around her chest.
“I’ve been trying for years. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“What did you want?”
“You, honey. When I first met your father, I knew he didn’t really love me. He was using me to raise you after your mother died, but I didn’t care. I loved you and that’s all that mattered to me.”
Helena sniffles, kicks at the hair on the floor and pulls her shirt tighter.
“He ditched you with me. I wasn’t born yesterday.”
“No, he was leaving me and he was going take you. Find someone else. I begged him to let me have you.”
“Then why was it so hard to get him to sign me over?”’
“Oh, sweetheart. I know it’s tough to understand, but the right thing isn’t always the easiest thing. No matter what, it would be difficult to give up your child. To admit that you’re not what’s best for them.”
Helena looks back at Bitty. Her face bruised beyond recognition, the tubes and pumps trailing off the bed, the sucking sounds of machinery replacing her lungs and suddenly she understands.
Like her own scar, Bitty’s tattoo means she’s alive.
~ The End ~