“Second Time Around”
I hate to admit it, but from a certain angle, it was really sort of attractive. I sat next to her, looking at it. It actually does suit her. I was her best friend once, so isn’t it my job to make sure she looks good? She seemed so peaceful, but her scars were an even brighter shade of red in contrast with the pallid flesh that covered the rest of her. She looked drained, distorted, like a single mother who works too many hours and never sees the sunlight.
“Mommy, is she sleeping?” She peered intently at the body.
“No, darling, she’s gone up to heaven.”
“Oh,” the child’s face lit up with understanding. Then, suddenly, she frowned, “Mommy?”
“Why is she wearing a mask?”
“To hide her scars. She was very badly burned.”
“But why? People don’t make fun of you in heaven, do they?”
I studied my beautiful child’s face, the sincerity of the question written there, her eyes wide, brow scrunched, head tilted. I stroked her soft cheek with my fingertips and answered, “No, I don’t suppose God would allow that.”
I heard about the accident two months after her apartment building caught on fire. She had always been a sound sleeper. The whole town pitched in to raise money for her skin grafts and hospital bills and plastic surgery. The fire had washed half her beauty away, and left the other half as perfect as it had always been, splitting her right down the center.
The mask was plastic or polyurethane or poly… something. It looked real from a distance, but up close it was obviously man-made, as smooth as a piece of glass and just as shiny. It was painted to match the other side, the unscarred side, its lip plump, its cheek rosy, its eyebrow perfectly arched. It looked like the dummy heads that cosmetology students practiced on. Half of her was porcelain doll and the other half looked like Barbie, but what really made me sick was that I still envied her.
“I think it’s time we started seeing other people,” I had said to her. We were seniors in high school. “You’ve already heard all of my jokes.”
I was only kidding, but she was hurt. She ran the five blocks from my house to hers. I think I heard her front door slam from my bedroom window, and it was never the same after that day. It was my fault, our collapsed friendship. I can admit that now, twelve years later, sitting next to her coffin.
I’d known her since the first day of kindergarten, when she sat on the floor next to me for story time. I was five and shy and all my pre-school friends were in another class. And there she was, a scrawny, gap-toothed girl, asking me to be her friend. We were inseparable.
“When did everything change,” she asked me in the voice of an eighty year old woman from her hospital bed.
“When you grew boobs and stole my boyfriend.”
She tried to laugh, but coughed instead.
“Did you come back because of this?” she asked, pointing to her bandaged face.
“I came back because I care about you. Now shut up,” I said, choking on the lump in my throat. “You’re supposed to be healing. Silently.”
Half of her mouth smiled at me.
When she was released from the hospital, people started looking at her differently. Not as one would look at a pretty girl who had unfortunately been paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, but as a pretty girl who would unfortunately never be pretty again.
“Take me to the prosthetics guy,” she asked me.
“I want a new face.”
“It’s amazing the things they can do with double-sided sticky tape these days,” I said to her two days later, looking her new mask over carefully. I help it up to her face, checking to make sure the pieces matched. “Perfect fit.”
I thought she was getting better. Everybody did. And then, one day, she swallowed a whole bottle of painkillers and that was that. So here I am, sitting next to her coffin, trying to remember whether she even believed in heaven.
How quickly we forget.
I wrote this piece in 2003, and it was published in the 2004 edition of my university’s literary magazine Troubadour. It was the third prize winner in a flash fiction contest.