Walk Away

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Pretty Girl

1998

I don't really know much about hair or makeup, but Sister gave me some tips before I left so I won't be "totally ignorant of girl stuff." She dragged me to the mall one afternoon and picked out all the stuff for me.

Talvinder, Kelly, and Melanie got wind of my outing with Eggy, so on the afternoon I was preparing myself, they stormed my room with various implements of torture which I was told were for my hair and face.

Kelly said Sarah did not come because she and Eggy have an "on again, off again" thing and it would have been weird if she had tagged along. I asked Kelly if that meant Sarah was once Eggy's girlfriend and the young woman laughed and said, "In her dreams!"

Talvinder explains that they shag sometimes, but Eggy is not really the type who keeps girlfriends. She looks at me pointedly as if this were something she wanted me to keep in mind as well. Blokes like Eggy only married within their own class. The Eggertons are a long, illustrious line of snooty, moneyed people. Eggy's mum is the daughter of the late Viscount Manderville. There's no way, Melanie adds, that Eggy would marry a sheep farmer's daughter from Yorkshire.

"Why not?" I try not to shudder and wince when Kelly starts brushing my hair. Small consolation that she's using my own hairbrush on me.

Kelly chuckles. "What the--"

"Do you know so little about the world, ya git?" Melanie says. There is no real heat in her words, however, so I know she's not mad at me.

Talvinder pinches her side in admonition. "She's from the States. It's different there. Kings marry commoners all the time for a laugh or something."

I look at Talvinder in confusion. "America is not a monarchy. We don't really have kings..."

The Indian girl rolls her eyes. "I mean kings of the industry, you dingbat. I swear to Charles, Dee-dee, you remind me of a baby bird that has fallen out of its nest and no bloody idea how to get back up."

I have no response to that, so I just shrug. I wish I had my headphones hugging my neck right now. It feels so naked and cold without it. With a yelp, I duck just in time to avoid the sponge slathered with liquid foundation heading straight for my face. "Whoa!"

Melanie puts her free hand on her hip and glares at me. "I haven't got cooties, Rainman. I'm just trying to help."

My face reddens in shame, so I lower my head so the girls can't see it. "I know, Melanie, I'm sorry. I'm just—"

"It's okay, girl," says Kelly's voice soothingly. "Mel, stop this butt-hurt nonsense. It's not about you; it's her. XL told us she's a germaphobe, remember? That's why she carries around those baggies of disinfectant wipes."

"I have my own stuff," I say in a small voice, pointing to the makeup kit on top of my desk.

Melanie marches to inspect my stuff and gasps after she opens the pink and purple container. "Blimey, she's got all sorts of fancy, new things here. Bobbi Brown, Mac, Laura Mercier, Clinique, Shiseido... quite a haul."

Kelly gasps, wide-eyed and rushes to her friend's side. "Oh, a treasure trove, indeed. Rainman, can I have this blue eyeliner? It's not your color, anyway."

I remember Sister saying it would make my eyes look more dramatic and showing me how to line the tip of my eyelids, above the eyelashes. "Well, uh..."

"No, Kelly, you can't have it," says Talvinder who is sitting next to me. "Honestly, we're here to help this poor girl, not take her shit. By the by, has she got anything that would go with my complexion?" She looks at me and grins. "D, I'm kidding. Mostly."

I nod and stretch my lips horizontally in an imitation of a smile. I have never learned the correct way to respond to people joking around with me. "I would appreciate any help and tips my new friends could provide," I say solemnly.

Melanie laughs and smacks my shoulder blade. "You are so goddamn weird, Yank."

While she and Kelly work on my hair, Talvinder pulls up my makeup kit on a tray table so she can start applying the stuff on me. She told Melanie that she was taking over makeup duty, so I don't end up looking like an extra on Absolutely Fabulous. She works quickly and deftly, commanding me to look up or down or purse my lips. Mel and Kell, as they've asked me to call them, are also surprisingly gentle with my hair.

They finish with me in no time at all. Talvinder stands back and beams at me as though I just accomplished a great feat, like recite five Shakespearean sonnets in order off the top of my head. In old English. "Oh, look at her! She's like a precious little doll," she exclaims. "What are you going to wear?"

Mother has always been in charge of procuring clothes for me which according to Sister, made me look like characters from Anne of the Green Gables and the Sweet Valley High series. This time, she managed to convince Mother to allow me to dress with a tiny bit of style and like I was "born within [her] generation."

Up to this very moment, I'm not quite sure how to feel about it. It's pink, mauve, and white, has flowers on it, and consists of tulle, chiffon, lace, and velvet. I told Sister that it looks like something Bob Mackey might throw up on Barbie after gorging himself on Bubble Yum Bubble Gum and pixy sticks, but she said I had to trust her on this one. "It's a Tadashi Shoji, child. Way chic."

The girls make way for me to get out of bed and I head for my closet where I pull out the dress that is still in its fancy Bloomingdale's bag. The bag itself is the length of the dress, made of the same material as an umbrella canopy, has a long vertical zipper from top to bottom, and a hanger so one could conveniently stash it away in her closet. I bring it to my new friends and carefully extract the dress, which they all gasp about and adore instantly.

"I love it," says Kelly. "It's so virginal yet coquettish. Way challenging to pull off these days."

Melanie strokes it with an expression of longing on her pretty face. "It's so lovely. And expensive. Are you rich, Rainman?"

I've never really thought about the state of my family's finances, but for as long as I can remember, we have always lived in nice houses and never lacked anything we needed. Mother always says we are very fortunate. "We do all right," I mutter with a shrug, unable to look at anything but my feet.

"Oi, what time is Eggy picking you up?" Talvinder demands, tugging on my hand. "We have to hurry, missy. You'll be hobnobbing with a roomful of wealthy wankers tonight and we can't have you looking like a halfway-transformed Cinderella."

Kelly laughs. "She's more like the Little Mermaid, don't you think? A fish out of water?"

"Good thing she don't stink like a fish," Melanie says dryly. "She smells like rubbing alcohol and laundry detergent, though. Not sexy. You got any perfume, Rainman?"

My face burns with embarrassment, but I find myself nonetheless confused. Is cleanliness not a good smell? "No. I don't wear any. I don't really like it."

Talvinder gives Melanie a light push on the shoulder. "Leave her alone, you slag. She's probably allergic to it or something. I bet baby powder is more her speed. You put on baby powder, D?"

"Sometimes," I admit shyly. I do it on hot days because it absorbs sweat really well. But baby powder has the word baby in it. My new friends already think of me as some kind of mentally handicapped charity case.

I've never really thought of my autism as a handicap. I am considered a genius by many standards and while I haven't yet figured out the puzzle that is humanity, I am making my way there in tiny increments. I have friends now, I think.

"Hey, Rainman, are you allergic to perfume or something? I've got one here that's rather posh-like," Kelly says, pulling a bottle of clear liquid with a fancy red stopper from her purse.

"I don't think so." This really has never occurred to me before. I've never really given much thought to smells as far as people are concerned, although I have a really good nose that can sniff things out.

Naturally, to me, it's a detriment for a lot of things. I won't go near a place where fish has been recently cooked, so that means I have to be somewhere else other than my mom's house on Fridays. I won't go into a restroom if I could detect even the tiniest hint of a person defecating, so that's usually inconvenient for anyone with me. I'd hold my excretions until I found a restroom that at least met the most minimal of my standards and that usually spells bad news for my companions because I get a little irritable and— according to Sister— whiny like a baby, about my condition until I could find an appropriate place to relieve myself.

"Well, this is a right ritzy fête, innit?" Kelly demands, still shaking her perfume bottle at me. "Do you want to smell like you've just been plucked out of a nursery?"

Talvinder frowns at her friend and grabs the perfume bottle out of her hands. "She's going to a gala for the benefit of the Ashmolean museum, ye daft cow. She can't march in there smelling like a chavvy slag on the Friday night of a weekend bender on Crack Street in Bristol."

"Oi, you snooty bitch." Kelly slaps her friend's arm, so that Talvinder would give back the bottle. "I paid fifty quid for that thing."

I watch the interplay between the two and realize that neither of them seem angry at the other, even though they have just called each other awful things. In fact, they are both laughing right now, taunting each other with pejoratives that concerned women of loose morals with sexually transmissible diseases. Melanie soon joins in on the fun and for the first time in a long time, I feel a pang of something close to envy. It's rare, but sometimes I yearn to be absorbed naturally into group camaraderie, so I can truly feel like I have a spot there because I belong there.

"Wait, she's the girl Eggy is taking to the big fancy gala that Sarah has been angling for half the year?" Melanie demands in a tone that I process as outrage. "This is the epic event? The one that got her obsessed with that super expensive Oscar De la Renta dress that she couldn't afford, so she had to take a second job at that grotty bird shop on Broad Street?"

I shudder in disgust and hope none of the physical indicators are apparent. I truly loathe birds. They're so creepy with their beady little eyes and ruthless determination to ruin Tippi Hedren's hairdo. Meanwhile, Melanie is staring at me, as though she were expecting me to do something.

I look at Talvinder who rolls her eyes and sighs. "Mel, yes. Why on earth do you think we've been sprucing her up for the last two hours?"

"I don't bloody know," Melanie blurts, wide-eyed. "Eggy's always got a fancy event like this that he don't take Sarah to. But you know, the last three months, they've gotten real cozy and Sarah got stars in her eyes again, the daft cow. Eggy already told her he was taking someone else, but I didn't know it'd be Rainman, did I?"

"So what if it's her?" Kelly asks, looking a little confused herself. "Ain't she better than a random snooty slag that Eggy usually takes?"

"Not really," Melanie insists, her voice rising. "Sarah's one of m'best mates. She'd kill me, wouldn't she, if she knew I was here consortin' with the enemy?"

I nod to myself as I realize why Melanie is bothered by the situation. It's a matter of loyalty, I think. She is good friends with Sarah and therefore should be on her side, perhaps providing some kind of assistance especially on this night that seems important to her friend. And yet here she is, in the rival's camp, colluding and having fun with her other mates that are decidedly not Sarah.

With arms akimbo and forehead furrowed, Kelly gives Melanie a narrow-eyed stare. "The enemy? Are you tryin' to take the piss? She's Rainman, for fuck's sake. She's bloody Hello Kitty. We've already established this. It's not like she's gagging for Eggy."

"Bollocks. We all had a thing for Eggy at one point in time," Melanie scoffs. "Why did you agree to go with Eggy? Do you have a thing for him?"

She pivots toward me, one foot and torso hinged forward, which I interpret as an aggressive stance. Inadvertently, I back up in response. What shall I do if she attacks? "A thing. By that, do you mean romantic interest?" I ask, perturbed. I've never really experienced infatuation before... until Professor T came along and turned my brain into applesauce.

"Leave her alone, Mel," Kelly says, taking her friend's arm to pull her back. "She probably don't even think about rubbish like that. Do you, Rainman?"

"It's never entered my mind," I mutter with a shrug. This conversation is making me uncomfortable. I should like it to stop now. "I have never considered Eggy as a potential non-platonic mate."

"See?" Talvinder says pointedly to Melanie. "Just listen to the way she talks. You really think she got fire in her loins for Eggy?"

Melanie waves her hand dismissively. "Nah, it's still messed up. She knows about Sarah and Eggy. She didn't have to say yes. You don't do that to a mate."

Kelly scoffs. "They ain't mates, ya thick bint. Rainman didn't know nothing. Quit yer hysterics before I smack you one."

"And let me get this straight, you would have been thumbs up if Eggy were taking D to another event instead of this one..." Talvinder slows down her speech and exaggerates her mouth movements, her tone that of an adult asking a child for clarification.

"Wellll... yeah. It's just that this one is such a big deal to Sarah. You know she wants to be an MP someday. She's aiming to start hobnobbing with the toffs who could get her there." Melanie drops her fighting stance and suddenly looks deflated. "I just feel shitty about Sarah, you know? She's been begging Eggy for months to take her to one them fêtes, but here comes Hello Kitty, all sparkly and new, and she'll be the one going to the ball!"

A feeling comes over me, compelling me to tell Melanie that I only agreed to go because Eggy said we would be going to the ballet first. That was really the selling point for me. I don't care who it is that takes me—I'd go by myself, if the thought alone didn't terrify me and I could afford the ticket— I just really want to go. And then Eggy said the proceeds are going toward the museum fundraising. Yay! I haven't been anywhere but the campus here in England. To me, the most logical thing was to accept the invitation.

And why is Melanie calling it a ball? Jeepers, I hope there won't be dancing at this event. The very idea of me dancing in public makes every strand of hair on my body stand end.

"Have you ever been to a big to-do like this, Rainman?" Talvinder asks, laying her hand lightly on my arm.

I freeze beneath her touch, but hold my breath and concentrate on not pulling away or shuddering. I sound gaspy and reedy when I tell her no.

"Oh, wonderful," says Melanie, her eyes glittering. "Have you got room in your clutch for a paper-bag to breathe into, Yank?"

Right. She's right. What am I doing? I've never been to anything like this. Eggy mentioned the ballet and that was really all I heard and focused on. I didn't think of the foreign atmosphere, smells, sights, and people I'd be encountering. What if I mess up in an epic way and end up embarrassing Eggy? What if I fall flat on my face, break my nose, and have to be taken to the hospital, bleeding like a stuck pig? As the reality of all of this comes sluicing over my shoulders like a bucket of cold, dirty water, my mind shifts to panic mode.

Okay, the first thing I have to do is to get all of these people out of here, so I can take off the dress and put it away neatly. I'd need to shower and scrub my face and hair clean of makeup and product until there is not a trace of it left. I'd also need to clean and organize my room to the way it was before the girls came, of course. Only then could I put on my pajamas, slip on my headphones, and hide under the covers until early Monday morning.

I am not comfortable with prevarication, but this is an emergency. When Eggy comes to pick me up, I will just have to tell him I am suffering from great intestinal distress, namely vomiting and explosive diarrhea. He would have no choice, but to excuse me from our engagement or be seen as a heartless monster.

I return to the surface with the sound of fingers snapping close to my face and annoyed voices, with an underlying tone of worry, calling my name or whatever nickname they've come up with for me. One voice stands out in particular because it is male.

"Oi, twatters, you've gone and broken my date." Eggy pushes aside Kelly who has been snapping her fingers in my face. "Look at her, she's catatonic or something."

Talvinder reaches around Eggy and taps me on the shoulder. "Hey, D, you all right, mate?"

I blink and release a lungful of air shakily. "Yes, I'm fine." I touch my temple briefly. "Just short-circuited there for a minute."

With a dimpled smile, Eggy tells me, "I have that effect on persons of the female variety."

"Gag me," Melanie mutters.

"Oi, Rainman, did you just make a joke?" Kelly demands. "You guys, I think she's all right."

I am once again confused. What joke did I tell? I'm not going to ask Kelly to specify what amused her about what I said because then she would think I didn't mean to be funny. Instead, I stretch my mouth sideways in my impression of a smile and hold up the thumb of each hand to show her I'm all set.

Her eyebrows knot together in the middle, expressing bemusement, but she also repeats my thumb gestures back at me, though less enthusiastically. "Right. All set then, Rainman?"

Eggy looks at the other girls in bewilderment. That's the only way I can interpret the expression on his face, which brings to mind a giant question mark. "You birds are a whole flock of nutters. I swear, that's why none of ye have a decent bloke to brag about."

Talvinder slaps him on the back of the head. "You're a right-side wanker, Rupert Eggerton. I honestly don't know how you manage to attract girls, never mind the ones who fall in love with you and make fools of themselves over you."

Eggy seems to take no offense at all, pulling down the sleeves of his tux jacket and adjusting his lapel. "It's my classic British good looks, Tally, and a certain je-ne-sais-quois about me. The ladies go wild for it."

"Not to mention his sizable trust fund," Kelly adds, eliciting laughs from the other girls.

"That's not the only thing sizable about me," he says pointedly, winking at me.

"Yeah," Melanie pipes up, rolling her eyes. "There's his ego, too."

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