Author: Sara Bautista
Genre: Young Adult
On the day everything changed, before I knew the truth about my mother, my biggest concern was the chemical spill site formerly known as my head. I’d let Greenly convince me that the solution to my boy problems—namely, there were no boys in my life—was to make myself stand out. Enter Salon Sensations #52 Black as Night.
We were supposed to do it together, but when the last day of winter break came around and Greenly was still stuck under eight feet of snow at her dad’s place in Montana, I decided to carry out the plan on my own. So there I stood, alone, dripping wet, hoping the frightening reflection in the mirror was an illusion. Closer inspection revealed the cruel reality: that scary thing in the mirror was me. It was the Sunday before the rest of my life, and I was a freak. I was also late for work.
I raced to change into my starched crimson dress. Between the hideous uniform and my now jet-black hair, my pale skin looked practically transparent, like the underbelly of one of those creepy fish at Emperor’s Wok. Splotches of dye lingered on my neck and ears, enhancing the effect. At this point all I could do was damage control. I rummaged around my closet for something to conceal the mess, but nothing worked.
In a last ditch effort, I climbed to the attic, taking the narrow steps two at a time. I pushed by the skeletons of old lamps and ghostly sheet-covered furniture until I found a Tupperware crate stuffed with clothes I no longer wore. I dug through until I found a kelly green scarf. It would have to do.
On my way out of the dusty space, another box, one I’d never seen before, caught my eye. Suzanne was scratched across the side in my father’s writing. I paused, glancing at the hole of light from downstairs. I had to go, but I couldn’t resist pulling apart the box’s worn cardboard flaps. I picked up the top item—a photo album—and opened it at random. My mother looked up from the page, holding what must have been a baby me. My throat caught at her warm, open smile and easygoing stance. I traced her face with my finger before shutting the album with a kiss. As I slid the box back into its spot, a small, folded piece of paper fluttered to the ground. The graceful cursive read “To Jocelyn with Love.”
I gingerly slipped it into my pocket for safekeeping and hurried on my way.
I had barely settled in behind the hostess’ podium in the dim lobby when the entrance bells jangled. I tugged at the hem of my kimono uniform—as if that would make it longer—and clamped my teeth together in what I hoped would pass for a smile.
A whoosh of cold greeted me, along with a tall, snow-dusted figure. Cliff Crawford. Joy. A little harassment from Neighbor Boy was just what I needed.
“Whoa, Jocelyn, is that you? Did you spend Christmas rescuing baby seals from an oil spill or something?” He laughed and circled around me, inspecting the damage from all sides. “Looks like you missed a piece back here. Actually, a few pieces…”
“Shouldn’t you be flunking out of community college somewhere?”
“It’s called a leave of absence, there, Bettie Page. I realized I haven’t found my calling yet, you know? Decided to move back in with the folks, maybe get a job at the Photo Hut. Pretty sweet deal, eh?”
“Yeah, every kid’s dream.”
A family filed in behind Cliff, crowding the entrance. Mrs. Liu, the restaurant owner, pushed in after them, making her first appearance of the evening.
“What’s going on here?” she squawked in my direction. “This is bottleneck! You want to talk to cute boys, you work at carwash!”
In the same breath, she turned to the embarrassed customers, and in a saccharine voice cooed, “Welcome to Emperor Wok. Four for dinner, please?” It wasn’t until she passed the hostess podium for the menus that she actually saw me. I worried that she might start convulsing right there, but she managed to keep walking. My scarf was clearly not doing its job.
“So where can a cute boy get some take-out around here?” Cliff asked, grinning.
I smirked and gestured toward the cashier.
Soon Mrs. Liu was back, ranting about the gravity of my hair-don’t. It registered as a Category Four catastrophe in her book, but she didn’t stop there. It was the bony hips (“men want ladies to make babies!”) and skinny arms (“you weak!”). I tuned her out when she started going off about my eyebrows—the center of a woman’s power—which were too light and thin for her liking, but I snapped right back to attention when she licked her finger and starting rubbing the purplish-black smudges tracing my hairline.
I was shielding myself with the podium when Cliff passed by on his way out.
‘You look odd,’ he mouthed.
Yes, yes I did, and I could count on Cliff to point that out. Ever since the summer after seventh grade when he pushed me into the Harrisons’ pool, fully clothed—thus revealing to the whole neighborhood that I still didn’t wear a bra—he had found endless ways to embarrass me. I was thrilled when he left for college last August; the last few months had been blissfully quiet and prank-less. Until now.
The Cliff encounter combined with a busy night at the Wok left me so flustered that I forgot about my mother’s note. It wasn’t until I was back home, running the water for another shower, that I saw the white edge peeking out of the pocket of my discarded uniform.
I held the thin paper to my nose, hoping to get just a touch of the elusive fragrance that lay somewhere on the edge of my memory. The note smelled of nothing but dust and faint mildew. Still, I savored it.
In contrast to the sparse writing on the outside of the note, sketches covered the inside. Flowers and vines laced with six-legged creatures lined the edges and twisted to encircle the small square of writing in the middle, almost concealing the words.
My dear Josie, pocket full of posies,
I miss you more with each day that passes. The good news is that I should be back soon. I can’t wait to give your sweet little self a big hug and a kiss. In the meantime, I’ve been catching bugs for you. See? Here’s a beetle and a cricket. I hope you’ve been finding lots of worms, and that you’re taking good care of Daddy.
Love you more than you’ll ever know,
A date, barely visible, hid among the sketched foliage.
I tucked the note into a drawer under the vanity and stepped into the shower. Something was off. I did the simple math once, then twice. The shampoo bottle slipped from my fingers, pummeled by cascades of dull grey water.
My mother couldn’t have written a note on that date. By then, I would be two; by then, she would be dead.