Cruel Beauty

**This fictional story contains delicate themes (e.g. bullying/coming of age sexuality/rape) and coarse language.  If you are sensitive or averse to either, please refrain from reading.**

I am a keeper of secrets. Not just the hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck kind, but the kind that make you want dive into the peanut butter jar and eat marshmallow fluff with a spoon. I’ve never been pretty. I’m the girl who stands in the mirror, towel on her head, pretending to be beautiful: Disney-princess-beautiful with long-flowing tresses, big eyes, and a perfectly heart-shaped mouth. I know I’ll never be her, but I dream to be.

I live in the country; I’ve lived here all my life. I spend my days wading through corn fields and my nights down by the creek. I like to listen to the silence there, to all the things hidden in it. I like to bring my diary too. I write about the things I hear and quietly muse how it would feel to catch my name dancing on the wind. The wind that kisses and caresses. The wind that doesn’t harm.

I write about sad things too. Like what Swan Anderson told everyone last week about my being a curse. That ugly people like me shouldn’t be allowed to live. I write about it because I know it’ll hurt less if I put it down on paper. If somehow I peel it off myself and plaster it to the pages of a book that can be closed.

Swan is one of those girls who was gifted with good looks and vexed with bad manners. She’s beautiful. She knows it. And so does everyone else in Drexel. Because of it she gets anything she wants. Her heart is black though, I’m sure of it. Just like I’m sure I hate tomato juice and that strawberries make me sneeze.

I watched her once after gym class, parading around half-naked in the locker room. She was talking about Nick Berry, the cutest boy in school and with whom she’d recently “done it”. Everyone hung on her every word but all I could pay attention to were her breasts. They were perfect−barely touched by the finest hairs, and transparent on both sides. Her nipples, deep pink and button-sized, were unlike my own which are huge and fleshy, like the breasts of the women in the nudie pictures my father hides in his chest of drawers.  I’ve always found them ugly too.

Swan has never talked to me. We’ve sat next to each other in homeroom nearly every year−Anders before Anderson and all that−but she’s never uttered a word. The closest she has come to acknowledging my existence is that cool flip of her hair. She almost looks at me when she does it. Almost. I get a faint whiff of her strawberry shampoo every time and afterward secretly pinch my outer thigh, careful not to let her see my silent reprimand.

Everyone loves Swan. Teachers praise her. Parents want to adopt her. Boys want to date her. Girls want to be her. But me, I simply want to survive her. I had a dream last night that she got run over by Willis Watkin’s tractor. She didn’t die, but the accident left her mangled, unrecognizable really. In my dream, I felt a frisson of joy and then a cold, deep stab of guilt at her misfortune. But then I woke up and realized she was still inimitably beautiful and horrible, so I cried myself to sleep.

I took off toward the creek this morning trying to forget. It was near dawn and I knew my father wouldn’t miss me.  Too much drinking.  Again.

I cut behind the Miller’s farm and followed the long fence to where it ends and climbed over. The grass was still somewhat wet and slimy beneath my sneakers, but the air was light, crisp even, for a summer morning. I hadn’t been in the Miller’s house for over a year. Not since Sil died. It didn’t seem fair for her to be taken so young: 37, full of life and love. She’d had a massive heart attack eight days after the birth of their fourth son, Jack. They found her prone, wearing her ruffled apron, the green telephone receiver just out of reach.

I babysat for them off and on until Mr. Miller, Sheriff Miller’s son, decided Swan would be a better choice. She is the first of nine siblings, a child-rearing cognoscente if there ever was one. “Surely, with all her experience, she’ll be able to handle my boys…better,” he told me. “I hope you understand, Margaret.” Sure. I understood perfectly. For a second, I had a wicked thought about Mr. Miller. But before it and my anger consumed me, I turned around and walked home.

The Miller’s property backs right up to Thunder Creek, but isn’t part of it. Their property is, however, one of only two ways to access it and since I’d been their babysitter and am not a known deviant, they’ve let me come and go as I please. They probably take pity on me, like most others do. A person knows when he’s being pitied, I assure you. There’s something unmistakable in the flattening of one’s lip and the squint of one’s eye when they’re trying too hard to be happy around you−like if they don’t, you’ll find the nearest bridge from which to hurl yourself. It’s ridiculous really, but then so are they.  Turns out ugly doesn’t trump ridiculous. Who knew?

The creek, calm and steady, was just beginning to warm from the dawning sun when I arrived. I closed my eyes to its music and let my body gravitate to my favorite rock, the huge one nestled beneath the wedlock tree, where my haunches had worn a perfectly-positioned settee.

Everything about this place is lovely. If I were an artist I could try to do it justice, but since I’m not, I just let its beauty wash over me. There are trees everywhere, both skinny and fat; and rocks−of all different shapes, sizes and colors−pepper the creek’s outer edges. Farther off there is a small sunflower field, which looks too perfect to be natural, and a wooden shack the fishermen used when the fishing was good. From what I’ve heard, it was also a prime make out place, but it’s been abandoned for years, the lower quarter now giving way to the creeping kudzu.

As I looked, I saw a strange light coming from the shack, like prisms dancing on the panes and swore I heard a scream. I decided to investigate since the odds were quite favorable that someone “up to no stinkin’ good,” as Pap always said, would be more scared of me than me of him. Besides, I hadn’t had the Cook’s tour of Thunder in a while and convinced myself, and my erratically beating heart, that now seemed like a perfect time. I remembered my father’s words: “Don’t worry, Mags. Wait long enough and you’ll find your fear.” And I had found it; it was skulking within me making the underside of my knees sweat and my bottom lip quiver.

I thought of how my father despised me as I crept. How he was a small man−not in stature, but in character−who had never forgiven me my mother’s death. How he held me responsible for it. Me, who took my first breaths as she took her last. Me, stuck with a drunk of a father who wouldn’t give the slightest damn if I simply vanished. Who would talk you dead for twenty-five hours with no bathroom breaks. Who, after deciding to take one step down the wrong path, decided to take another and then another and then another. Cruel he could be, but mostly he was just inconvenient and foul− a weighty addition to the laundry list of why-to-leave-this-hellhole-of-a-town.

I was cut by another scream, followed by sounds of struggle, as I eased my way alongside the shack and then to standing beneath its window. I saw him first, one hand over her mouth, the other between her legs. His body, moving grotesquely into hers in rapid bursts, was rigid with wrongdoing and heavy with shame.  “Is−this−how−you−like−it−pretty−girl?” he asked, then answered, “Yeah−this−is−how−you−like−it.”

Her white panties circled her ankles and her head shook back and forth, occasionally smacking the filthy floor, finally breaking her butterfly clip as she fought him. But it was no use. He was too strong and too crazed. He began to hit her, to bash her slight frame, and that’s when I heard a scream, recognizing it seconds later as my own. I started hammering the glass shouting, “Get off of her! Get off!”, and hurled every foul word I knew at him, calling him a shitdickass, or something like that, as I ran around the side of the shack screaming that I’d kill him. “I’ll kill you,” I promised, through a rush of adrenaline and moxie, and then was nose to chest with him, his open fly and his horrified expression. Son of a bitch, I thought, looking into the ruddy face of Mr. Miller, and behind him, to a cowering ball of flesh: Swan Anderson.

For every Goliath, there is a David, but staring into Mr. Miller’s eyes I realized I was no David. I took a step back as he raised his fist, and felt a warm trickle run down my inseam and pool in my polka-dotted socks, as I waited for its weight across my face.  “You leave her out of this,” Swan warned, trying to pull her panties up her shaking legs. “You touch her and I’ll tell everyone about this−your father, your children. I’ll tell them everything,” she seethed. “I’ll even go to the graveyard and tell Sil.” Something in him broke then. He looked around the shack−suffused with heat, sweat and regret−to Swan, and then to me as he lowered his arm, stepped back and disappeared into the woods.

“You won’t tell anyone about this, Margaret,” Swan said, as her teeth chattered against her bent knees. She wouldn’t look me in the eye and kept smoothing her hair and her dress. I stared at her in disbelief, not for what she asked me to do, but that she said my name. It seemed a small victory to hear it pass her lips. Somewhere deep down I waited for her to melt at the utterance of it, like she’d warned many times before.  Nope, I thought, and shook my head back and forth.  “Good,” she whispered.

I stood in the doorway, not knowing where to be or how to act, as she walked toward me dusting herself off. She pinched her pale cheeks, which quickly came to life, and brushed her hand through her hair as she looked at me and walked away.  The faint smell of strawberries lingered for a moment as I pinched my outer thigh, not as a reprimand, but as a prayer, as a keeper of secrets.

**I wrote this story last year, yet until yesterday only one other soul had read it.  Obviously, it’s not what you’d expect from bloomingspiders, but it is an artistic expression of deep themes, as are all of my posts.  In the future, I plan to post pieces that may stretch and scare us both.  I hope you will welcome that, but if you don’t I understand.  My ultimate goal as a bloomingspider is to spin truth to net hearts.  Rape and bullying are deep-searing truths for many.  And while they may not be yours, I pray you’ll be sensitive to those whose they are.  I close with the sacred blessing of my dear friend, Charissa Grace:

“Do justice
Love mercy
Walk humbly”

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