16 May 2018

The Fire Pit

Prompt:  Distinctive Markings | Word Count: 1199 | Genre:  Fiction

Janie adjusted the bangs on her wig, pulling small segments between her thumbs and forefingers.  Frowning at her image, she tousled the bangs.  She had not had bangs before the accident.  She turned a bit, to view herself from a slightly different angle, and adjusted the collar of her blouse.  Nothing helped.  The scars still showed.  Again, she began to work on the wig, attempting to better cover what she didn’t want seen.

“Ok, sis, ready?” Tim appeared reflected in the mirror.  He tossed and caught his keys, grinning.  “First day of high school.  My baby sis, so grown up.  If you hurry, we’ll stop at the Donut Shoppe.  My treat.”  

Again Janie frowned.  Her eyes darted to the basket of makeup on the vanity.  Even when all her friends in junior high had experimented with so much makeup, Janie had only ever used mascara.  She didn’t like how makeup felt.  And yet now, it seemed as necessary as armor for battle.

“Nope, no time.  Gotta go.” Tim sighed.  “No amount of makeup will help.  We gotta be realistic.”

“Jerk,” she whispered, pummeling him gently with her fists.  She was smiling a little bit.  The fact that he was teasing her was a reminder of how far she’d come; that he didn’t feel like he needed to be so gentle anymore.

Tim grabbed her hands.  “We’ve been through this.  Everyone knows about the accident.  You don’t need to hide it.”

Janie turned back toward the mirror.  She knew her brother was right.  Centerville Heights was a small town.  Everyone knew about everything, including her accident at the fire pit. Shoot, lots of kids from school had witnessed it.  She and Mary Catherine weren’t even supposed to be at the fire pit.  It was really only for high school kids, but they’d begged Tim until he relented.  She’d told Dad that she was spending the night at Mary Catherine’s; Mary Catherine had told her parents she was staying at Janie’s.  But she could recall nothing of the incident itself.  She remembered it had been a really cold February evening. That one basketball player had been there, the really handsome one.  She remembered seeing him across the fire pit.  She remembered saying to Mary Catherine that she wouldn’t have minded being one with the fire, a bit of hyperbole, a vocabulary word they’d learned that week in English. Janie’s next memory was waking up in Holy Family. Somehow, by then, it was the end of April.

Her lower face was unaffected.  It was the hair, forehead, and her left ear that had been damaged the most, but the burns extended down along her neck to her left shoulder and upper arm.  And then there were the scars from where the doctors had grafted her own skin.  

What she missed most was her hair.  She’d had beautiful wavy hair before, her father calling her his auburn beauty, claiming Janie’s hair even more lovely than her late mother’s.  She knew no one else who had hair that color. All that was left was a tiny patch at her nape, which had been buzz cut short.  The wig she hated, but it was necessary.  She hadn’t worn it much, and not once outside of the house yet.  Her dad had cried and left the hospital room when the doctor said that Janie’s hair growing back was impossible.  And now Dad worked so much, trying to pay the bills. She couldn’t help but wonder if he couldn’t face seeing her, if that was why he was working so many shifts.

Janie felt her eyes welling with tears.  

“Nope, nope. No.”  Tim’s voice was firm.  “Girls never cry in Tim’s truck.  You’re gonna have to find another hitch if that dam spills over.”  He was holding her gently in his arms now, rocking her a bit. Somehow he knew where the nerves were tender, where it was distressing to have pressure, and he avoided those areas. Even the nurses in the hospital sometimes bumped against areas that were too tender for touch.  

“I don’t think I’m ready.”  Janie whispered.

Tim exhaled.  “But if you go today, you’ll get it over with.  What you’re dreading.”  

“I can’t believe Dad isn’t here.”

“You know he needed to take that shift.  You know he’s thinking of you.”  A pause.  “Did you eat?”

Janie shook her head.

“Ok, then, we’d better go.  I need donuts.”

She felt a little better than she expected once she got in the truck, but she insisted the windows all be rolled up.  She didn’t want to risk even one hair moving out of place.  Once they turned from the neighborhood onto the main street, though, Janie was hit by a barrage of memories.  She hadn’t left the house over summer except for doctor’s appointments and therapy.  But now, heading the away from the hospital, she saw places she used to go before, she recalled memories of before, and thought of people she hadn’t seen since before. A flood from before washed over her. She’d spent so much time just concentrating on each present moment, trying to get through the pain and trying to manage the difficulties of her involuntary transformation.  She’d had no time, had no energy to focus much on the past, much less on the future.

Mary Catherine had been away at summer camp, her first year working as a counselor. Janie had a vague recollection of Mary Catherine visiting at the hospital.  But they hadn’t really seen each other since the accident.  Realizing this made her realize how absent Mary Catherine had been.  They’d been friends forever, all through junior high without much drama.  Did they have an unbreakable bond or not?

Tim pulled into the Donut Shoppe.  “You coming in?”

She shook her head, and as his door closed, she checked her wig in the rearview. She could feel herself turning into one of those women who checks her compact multiple times an hour and she did not want to be like that.  But she couldn’t bear not checking, not knowing how badly her scars were showing, what people would see when they looked at her.  

She couldn’t help it, though, and checked the mirror again, compulsively adjusting the wig, pulling and pushing strands of hair this way and that.  As she sat back, she noticed high school students were surrounding the truck.  Some she recognized from her grade and others were friends of her brother.  At the front of the truck, each of them holding a box of donuts, stood Tim and Mary Catherine.  Everyone was smiling and waving to her.

She rolled the window down but couldn’t speak.

“We’re here to welcome you back,” a familiar voice said.  

And Mary Catherine was there, at the door, opening it.  “Tim and I didn’t want you to walk in to school without us.”

Janie stepped from the car and found herself enveloped in a warm gathering of friends, each of them calling out to her.

“We missed you, Janie.”

“So good to see you.”

Tears fell as Tim and Mary Catherine stood on either side of her.

“Now you know why I told you not to wear make-up,” he whispered.