Chapter 1. mink
When my mother told me we were moving to Vancouver, British Columbia—in Canada….Canada!—to say I was shocked was more than an understatement.
“Why, Mom?” was all I asked, though there were a ton of other questions running through my mind. Was she going to quit her job? Did she already have a new one? Where would we live? Was she going to sell our small, but familiar, house? What had made her come to such an unthinkable decision to move from our small, boring Pennsylvania town to a city as unimaginable to me as Vancouver?
She ruffled my hair with a smile, one that wasn’t present in her eyes, and answered, “Oh, come on, Mink. Don’t look at me like that. I’m hoping a change of scenery will help your…condition.”
My name wasn’t Mink, it was Maura. The embarrassing nickname was given to me by my mother because of the particular brown of my hair. Mom had told me I was born with a large shock of fuzz on my head, which had reminded her right away of a mink cap. Attractive… But my real name had been a constant source of bother to me, so much that I would cringe almost anytime I heard someone speak it aloud. I had looked its meaning up once, hoping for something generic, like “flower” or “happiness,” only to be stuck with “Sea of Bitterness” glaring back at me from the web page. When I’d growled my discovery at my mother, her apologetic tone made me see that the dark meaning wasn’t an accident.
“It was a hard time for me, Mink,” she said, casting her cat-green eyes down. “But really, don’t you think it’s a pretty name?”
I hadn’t known what to say in response. In time, I resigned myself to accepting that I was just a part of the disappointment that seemed to overwhelm her life. I knew I was a constant reminder of my father, whom she’d lost before I was born. He had been the most magical thing she’d ever experienced, she’d told me once. I guess you could say I was the consolation prize she got stuck with. I tried hard to make up for his absence but finally realized that none of my efforts could ever completely repair the fissure in her heart. The realization wasn’t enough to make me stop trying, though.
My straight-A status always inspired a big smile, but one ever incomplete, hollow. Unlike other sixteen-year-olds, I kept not only my own room, but the rest of the house as well, irrationally spotless. My three parentless afternoon hours were spent cleaning so that she never had to bother.
That earned me an, “Oh, Mink, what would I do without you!” at least once a week. She would even use her best pretending-to-be-happy voice.
At present, I was coming, rapidly, to the end of my junior year. May was nearing its middle, and with the coming of spring, my ‘condition,’ as mom put it, would always worsen. Most teenagers were in love with the sun. In Indiana, Pennsylvania, springtime meant more sun, even though it did still rain a lot, which made most if our town’s inhabitants jubilant. But not me. Spring meant my torture was about to begin. The excuses for staying in, the fabricated illnesses……the further separating of myself from normal humans in general.
I had been born with fairly pale skin. Maybe ‘fairly’ wasn’t a good word choice, since I mean, more like extremely pale skin. In most places, my blue veins were beyond noticeable, like sky-colored worms sliding right beneath the surface. Couple the pallor with my eyes, so dark brown they were almost black, and the deeply-brown brunette of my hair, and you had one very strange looking human girl. My pallor was probably one of the reasons I grew my hair long, attempting to hide as much of myself as possible.
If the color of my skin hadn’t been enough to drop me into the freak category, I had also been born with an extreme sensitivity to the sun. In fact, most fair-skinned people have been stricken by such an affliction, but I didn’t just burn easily; the sun made me physically ill. I couldn’t be out in direct sunlight for little more than a half hour without becoming violently nauseous, which was beyond embarrassing, making me feel like a carnival attraction. I’d once ruined the interior of my mother’s new car, due to the sun shining on the side of my head for too long. She’d quickly invested in the darkest window tint she could have installed.
And that day, of course, the sun was shining miserably on my head as I quickly headed for the oak-tree-shaded bus stop. In my rush to get out of the house, I’d forgotten to put on my dark sunglasses, but I dug them out of my pack then, twisting around awkwardly as I made my way into the comforting shadows. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Katie Parker coming out of her house across the street.
“Great,” I muttered under my breath. Placed beside Katie’s blonde, tanned perfection, I looked all the more irregular. I tried to put on a happy face anyway and be sociable, a definite struggle for me.
“Hi, Katie,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. I refused to ever say ‘good morning,’ as I hated mornings and saw nothing good about them whatsoever. I didn’t expect much in the way of a reply. Katie, annoyingly perky in her cheerleading uniform, was miles away from my end of the social spectrum. So, I was shocked when she turned her bright blue eyes on me, dazzlingly, and spoke to me in a way she never had before that day.
“Hi, Maura!” She was so chipper, her mood was stifling. “Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”
I wondered briefly what she would say if I shot back: “Actually, I like the rain,” like I was thinking. I thought better of it and replied, “Sure is.”
“Aren’t you excited about prom?” she bubbled.
Oh, so that was the reason. She was overexcited about prom and probably just needed an outlet for venting all her pent-up enthusiasm. Prom was in a few weeks, and no one had asked me, not that I really wanted to go. The thought of my pale shoulders exposed in some fancy dress made me cringe. I tugged at the edge of one of my long sleeves unconsciously in response.
“Well…er…I hadn’t really planned to go.” I cringed again, waiting for the sardonic giggle or the accusation that I couldn’t get a date.
Instead, the corners of her mouth turned down. “Oh, that’s too bad.” She sounded like she really meant it, and I wondered if I actually was standing here on the sidewalk with her, instead of still lying asleep in my room. The conversation was more attention Katie had given me than in all the years we’d gone to school together, combined. Our last interaction had been a nasty pudding-to-the-hair incident in my first year of school…me on the receiving end, of course, resulting in a demand from my mother to hers that Katie stay far away from me…or else! I think I must have been looking at her with my mouth hanging open. She quickly tried to fill the silence.
“I could get Trent to set you up with one of his friends,” she offered eagerly.
My quick temper flared. “I don’t need a pity date,” I snarled. She looked hurt at that, and I was instantly ashamed of responding so venomously.
“I-I d-didn’t mean it that way…” Her eyes were wide.
I felt worse. How could she understand all the defenses I’d put into place to remind myself to keep away from others and avoid the way they treated me like the freak I was. Maybe my behavior had made the idea of the incident in my head into something worse than it really was? Kindergarten had been a long time ago… I dropped my eyes to the sun-speckled shadows falling from the leaves above.
“I’m sorry, Katie.” I made up an excuse fast. “I didn’t sleep very well last night…” My voice trailed off. How could I expect to be forgiven? It was unlikely in the first place that someone like her would talk to someone like me, and I’d already gone and messed things up. *Not that I really care,* I thought to myself; I was used to the sanctuary of solitude I’d built around myself.
To my extreme surprise, she brushed my brashness off with a wave of her hand. “It’s okay, Maura. I never meant to offend you. Of course you’re pretty enough to get your own date. I’d kill to have hair like yours.” Was she kidding?
At that moment, her twin brother emerged from the house. Trent sauntered across the street toward us. Like his sister, he was blonde perfection, except he was as huge and heavily muscled as she was sleek and slender. The hours of football practiced were evident in the rippling muscles that covered his six-foot-three frame. He still made me gape in awe. I’d had a crush on him since ninth grade…not that liking him would ever do me any good. “Morning, Maura.” He did a double take. “Nice hair,” he noted and looked at me as if with new eyes. Yep, I had to be dreaming.
“Thanks.” My expression of gratitude came out way too soft, and I felt myself blush. I lowered my head quickly. When I looked back up, Katie and Trent were looking at each other, something unintelligible passing between them. I shrugged the moment off, chalking the whole thing up to some kind of twin thing.
“You’re not driving today?” I managed to ask, trying to make conversation. It wasn’t often he left the red Mustang convertible at home.
“In the shop.” He grinned back at me. I realized he’d never really been much of a conversationalist. His simplicity stole away a little of his faerie glamor. I smiled to myself at that thought.
I heard the bus coming then, but I was the only one who turned around to see. Funny, the large yellow vehicle was still blocks away down the street, not nearly as close as the bus had sounded. How could I hear the engine running from so far away? As suddenly as the sound had amplified inside my head it died away as if fading away to normal. I shook my head to clear my thoughts…weird. Katie and Trent were standing beside me, uninspired looks on both their faces. I pinched myself rather hard on the leg to see if I could wake myself up. All I ended up with was a bruise, ugly on my too-white skin.
The dreamlike feel to the day continued as the hours passed. Trent actually invited me to sit with him and the rest of the football players and cheerleaders at lunch. Besides having next to nothing in common with any of them, I felt even more flawed amid their little sea of perfection.
“Say, Maura, what’re ya doing this Saturday?” Trent asked.
I almost choked on the french fry I was attempting to swallow. I had been planning to study for upcoming finals. The end of school was almost a month away to the day. Of course, I would never admit I was that lame. “Nothing special,” I managed, after I got the fry down.
“We’re going swimming down by the bridge, wanna come?” His invitation was much less than eloquent, but the words still made my heart flutter. People never asked me to go anywhere. Not that I’d ever really tried to connect with anyone in high school. The teasing I’d endured during elementary and junior high had been more than enough to make anyone avoid human contact. The solitude had turned me into a bookworm and a bit of a video-game freak.
“Sure…” I was trying to be casual, but my reply came out as a squeak. One of the idiotic cheerleaders let out a laugh at my response. Katie, of all people, reprimanded her.
“Geez, Wendy, what’s your problem? Just shut up, okay?” She put a menacing edge on the last three words. The day just kept getting stranger.
Katie poured sunshine into a brilliant smile she then turned on me. “You’ll come, right, Maura?
I settled for nodding my head in response. It was only Monday, so I had five whole days—almost—to change my mind.
Later that night, I stood in front of the mirror, fresh out of the shower, blow-drying my hair. I looked a bit closer, trying to see something there that would possibly cause perfect Katie Parker to wish she had my hair. And cause her brother to take special note of it. I realized, stunned for a moment, my hair was different, somehow. I’d always thought of my hair as ordinary. The strands were a dark, unusual kind of brown, but I’d always been disappointed with its flat, lackluster look and straight texture.
That night, even under the subdued lighting in our bathroom, my hair shone with new light. I blinked and looked back, picking up a strand for close examination. I turned the dryer off and ran my hand down the lock, amazed at how each one felt glossy. Dark highlights played across the surface as I twisted my head under the scant light. And there just seemed to be more of it, as well. I ran both hands up through, along the sides of my head. My hair was so thick, thick and silky soft, like never before. Or had I just never noticed? Did Katie’s unexpected comment somehow wake me up to noticing things I’d never seen in myself before? Impossible. I didn’t remember my hair ever being so lush and even twisted to the side to get a glimpse of the lengths falling toward my waist in waves more like my mother’s hair.
Smiling, I shrugged and turned the dryer back on, the logical part of my brain chalking the whole thing up to Caelyn purchasing some expensive, salon-brand shampoo I hadn’t noticed in the shower. Satisfied with my theory, I didn’t dare pull the shower curtain back to check.