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Chapter FOUR



The outside of my house was perfectly cared for, the grass green—crisp and evenly trimmed. There was a row of multi-colored gardenias, tulips and roses planted in the flower bed in front of our small porch, varying in colors from red to blue and purple to yellow. I remembered the first assumption Jackie had made of Gwendolyn when she first came to my house: “Either this woman really loved gardening or she had a serious case of O.C.D.”

I set my keys down on the kitchen countertop as I hung my gray purse on the stairwell post. Everything was quiet, which was natural in our home. Gwendolyn enjoying keeping a “pleasant and uplifting” atmosphere and was very high maintenance, always worrying about the little things. She would often fret about if that was the reason her late ex-husband left her for another woman, quietly and quickly without ever hinting he was going to do so or revealing the hidden affair. Gwen had been so alone that she had decided to adopt, which is where I came into the picture, sixteen years ago.

I took a deep breath, still antsy about the scene at Jackie’s house and the traffic ticket. I had decided on my drive home that I would not tell Gwen about either occurrence. Both would just result into more than just mere casualties with her.

“Claire? I didn’t hear you get in.”

Gwendolyn appeared in a pair of silk black sweats and a white tank top, her midnight, ravenous curls in a bun on top of her head. There wasn’t a trace of makeup on her face, Gwen believing makeup to be a sin since most was tested from and on animals. This is why I kept my eyeliner, smoky eye shadow, and mascara light. I didn’t want to give the poor woman a heart attack.

She was naturally beautiful with her heart shaped face and almond shaped and colored eyes, that she did not need makeup. Her face was blemish free all the time. Many envied her, including me.

When I only answered with a shrug, Gwen came over to wrap me in a tight embrace. She smelt like green tea and mint leaves, a few of her loose strands of stray curls tickling my cheek as she pulled away. I dug my hand into my pocket and pushed the traffic ticket down farther. I knew she was not going to see the ticket through my pocket with x-ray vision or anything—Gwendolyn just had a very keen eyes and suspicious, watchful approach about paying attention to the little things in life.

“Happy birthday,” she smiled, squeezing my shoulders and holding me at arm’s length to get a good look at me. The pressure in my head throbbed over the pulsing blood in my ears that had made a continual presence since I had fled from Jackie’s house.

“Thanks, Mom.” It always hurt her feelings when I didn’t call her Mom. And she had raised me since I was three years old, so she was practically like a mother to me in the finer sense.

She made her way past me into the kitchen, pressing the answering machine button as she spoke. “What do you plan on doing today? I was thinking we could do lunch.”

“Lunch sounds good,” I quickly said, nearly cutting her off on the last syllable. I mentally kicked myself for being so jumpy and jittery as Gwendolyn raised an eyebrow at me.

“Everything okay?”

“We’re fine. I mean—I’m fine.” I paused, shut my eyes, and rethought over what I was going to say next. “I have to go. Lunch at noon?”

But before Gwen could even answer I was out of the room, clutching my head as the pain worked its way farther into my skull and down to the base of my neck and I sped down the hall.



I rummaged through the drawers of my dresser, trying to decide on an outfit to where on my lunch outing with Gwendolyn, but I may as well decide on going in a clown suit for all of the progress I was making. I sat down on my bed and breathed a heady sigh, pressing a palm to my forehead. I had taken my temperature earlier—a normal 98.6, as it had always been—but the heat in my forehead burning against my hand was infuriating me and driving me towards sweltering impatience. 

I decided on a small black dress, seeing as Gwendolyn and I went to the same ornamental restaurant every year for my birthday. What was wrong with me? It was like my mind had shot somewhere deep into outer space.

I paused, the black fabric in one hand, the copper hanger it had once been on in the other. My eyebrows furrowed as I thought back to my temperature, wondering when it had been the last time I had ever gotten a fever or anything above your average human temperature. I could not remember there ever being a time that I was sick, period. And that truly confused and frightened me.

I slipped the dress over my head in a daze and checked my reflection in the full-length mirror in front of me. My face was a little flushed and my eyes looked swollen from a restless night of only dozing off once or twice. My hair rested in waves down my back, due to its natural formation that I had been born with. I ran a hand over my pink cheek and examined my green eyes, leaning closer to the mirror until my nose nearly brushed the chill hard surface. My long black lashes touched my eyebrows as I widened them to examine the pupils. Had they always been this…dilated?


I jumped, bumping my already aching forehead against the mirror as I rubbed it with frustration. I grimaced at the prickles of heat and pain that swelled there, worse than before thanks to my most recent ungainly injury.

“What are you doing? Our reservation is at twelve. We should be leaving now.” Gwendolyn looked at me with confusion and a hint of laughter in her large almond eyes, tilting her head to the side as she stepped closer to me and cradled my cheek in her hand. “What happened to your forehead?” she asked, running her petite hand over the throbbing spot. My whole body was flushed with an oppressive temperature, and her cold fingers felt nice against the tender area.

“Nothing,” I assured her, although it came out as more of a question. I had been asking myself that same question since yesterday after Jackie and I left the library. I gently turned from her gaze and touch as I kept my steps steady over to my bed and grabbed my purse. I reached for the nude lipgloss I kept in the inner compartment and dizzily rubbed some over my lower lip, trying to keep my hand from compulsorily shaking.

“It’s really hot,” she pressed, moving to my side at once and forcing me to look at her. “It feels like you may be running a fever. Did you take your temperature—?”

“Yes, Gwendolyn,” I snapped as I moved past her to the mirror, flinching at both the tone in my voice and my reference to her. I didn’t normally call her Gwendolyn unless I was nervous or angry with her, and the ferocity in my voice frightened me. This in both cases never happened. I sighed and steadied my expression as I looked up at her hurt and doe like eyes, wide and innocent.

My stomach knotted with guilt. “I’m sorry. I’m just having an off day. On my birthday, no less.” I forced a small grin to lighten up the moment, but the movement felt stiff and robotic as I clutched my purse and moved back to her side, gently touching her arm. “I’m sorry,” I said again.

Gwendolyn sighed, but I could tell she was still worried. Being the over protective type was an understatement in place to branding her as.

Touching my cheek, she forced a smile of her own and moved over to my bedroom door. She turned back to me and cocked her head to the side. “Are you sure you’re alright, hun?”

I nodded for reassurance, though my head spun. “I’m fine. I’ll meet you at the car, okay? I just have to grab a couple things.” I just need time to gather myself before I’m expected to spend a couple of hours in public under your watchful eye.

Without another word Gwen left, leaving me to grab my cover up and straighten myself out as I took one last look in the mirror. My forehead was still a bit rosy, but there was nothing I could do about that except put a little makeup on it and pray that I wouldn’t do something demeaning like faint by the time I made it to Gwendolyn’s BMW in the driveway.




The restaurant was extravagantly beautiful. Crystal chandeliers showered light over each linen-clothed table, cascading a golden halo over each guest sitting at tables and chattering away over their expensive meals. There was definitely a reason Gwendolyn and I only came here once a year for my birthday—expenses being one of the top reasons. The walls sang lines of various poetry in all different styles—from Shakespeare to T.S. Elliot—as we followed a waitress to our reserved table in the back corner, my black heels nearly sinking through the plush carpet as we stopped and sat down in cushioned green seats.

I had to admit, the place looked better than I remembered it being—more than a hotel than a four-star restaurant. A place where you would bring a date or an important colleague over a prestigious business meeting.

“Order anything you want,” Gwen smiled over her menu as she took a sip of her water. “Today is your day.”

I laughed at her words. They were the same two sentences she presented me with every year we came here, since my freshman year. And I always predictably got the same thing—creamy mushroom ravioli and warm croissant rolls with a lemon water. I grudgingly had to admit that I was not one for change—not since Gwen had adopted me.

When I was old enough for her to tell me about how I ended up living with her—I was devastated, without question—I had decided I never wanted change again. Never. Not over even the simplest things. Change frightened me. The fact that I had had a mother who had unknowingly and inexplicably given me up at the age of three terrified and saddened me to great amount, and abandonment was not something I ever truly wanted to ever face. I could deal with living with my adopted mother and not knowing who my real parents were. I had been doing it my whole life.

It was just the petrifying thought of ever losing Gwendolyn that I had the hardest time with.

We were greeted by a young waitress—a petite redhead with doe-brown eyes and porcelain skin—soon after our arrival and were immediately tended to as she rushed to process our orders and arrive twenty-minutes later. The service always left me awestruck.

“So,” Gwen smiled, picking her fork up and setting her tablecloth napkin in her lap. “How’s school? Are you and Jackie getting along fine?”

I threw a quizzical glance her way, her eyes looking down at the caesar salad in front of her as she shifted its contents with her fork under my unprepared stare. “Yes. Why, did something happen?” I speared a ravioli and popped it in my mouth, my stomach feeling nauseous and rickety. I could not disappoint her after she went to so much trouble bringing me here, though. If only my vision would settle so I would only see one Gwendolyn when I looked at her instead of three.

“Her mother called. Said that you weren’t feeling well and that you had a horrible migraine. Why didn’t you tell me when I asked you how you were earlier? Are you feeling alright?”

“I’m fine, Mom,” I assured her, making a mental note to thank Jackie later for the trouble she has caused. Gwendolyn didn’t press the situation further, and for that I was grateful. For once in my life, I was grateful that she was not around enough to pry into my life when I needed my personal freedom.




I wasn’t surprised to come home to find Jackie tying balloons on the flag of our mailbox, waving excitedly as she pointed to the bright blue balloon and gave me a thumbs up. I sighed and put a hand to my forehead, feeling another headache coming on as Gwendolyn opened her door and greeted Jackie cheerfully.

“Jackie! How great to see you. You let yourself in, I presume?” Gwendolyn winked as she walked up the porch steps to find the door left ajar. Let herself in? It sounded like Jackie had let half of the city into our home. Decorations were scattered across the cement as she stepped around the streamers and glitter she had laid out.

“Don’t I always?” Jackie grinned and looked over at me, still in the passenger’s seat of the VW Rabbit, too frightened to get out and face my possible doom. I shriveled my nose in worry as Jackie skipped over and threw the door open. It had taken everything in me to not reach over and slide the lock down for fear of being sorely attacked—cornered without fair escape.

“What is this?” I demanded as I was pulled from the car and onto my feet. My head spun. Music was blaring inside as Gwen scurried out of the house and shouted a quick goodbye over the music and her wish for me to have a “good time.” I shot her a pleading look of desperation, but she did not seem to catch it. Or she plainly ignored it. Either way, she was just as quick to get out of their as I wanted to leave.

“Your party, silly!” Jackie exclaimed, as if the explanation were totally obvious. Obvious was an understatement. The music was loud enough to make your ears bleed if you were even within seeing distance of my house, and streamers and lights were attached to the window sill and porch railing, twisting up into a bow as a light was placed every two feet in synchronization.

I cringed at the scene before me, the smell of overlapping perfumes and cologne filling my nose as I hesitantly stepped into the family room. It was weird to feel so out of place in my own home, but that is exactly what was going on. I did not know half of the people here and I was pretty sure that Jackie didn’t either. Half of the city had to have populated my house in just a matter of two hours.

It should have been comforting and somewhat reassuring to my confidence that so many strangers would show up to my party, but it held the most extreme opposite effect on my immune system. While I observed the multi-colored balloons that had levitated to the ceiling and the various snack good items and punch sprawled across a food table I had not even known we owned, I scanned the room for a familiar face—anybody that would take this horrid headache away and make me feel more at home and ease.

I was about to take another step in the entrance to the party before me, but I found my arm being yanked from its socket in the direction of my bedroom as I strived to regain my thrown-off footing.

I glared at the back of Jackie’s head as she locked the door behind us and sat me in front of the vanity mirror for observation. My appearance was the least of my worries.

“Why did you…?”

“Shhh,” Jackie shushed me with an idle hand in the air as she picked up a brush and began to run it along each strand of my hair. “The outfit is cute, but the hair needs work. As far as makeup goes…well, we can touch if up so you’re presentable to your peers.”

I gaped at Jackie in baffled shock as she moved behind me to work on the back sections of my tangled brunette waves. “Who gave you the permission to critic my appearance?”

“Me, of course,” Jackie responded as if it was the most obvious answer in the world. I looked at her in the short square-length mirror, watching her glide the brush down my hair in graceful precision. Her usual pixie style was in soft little waves at the very tips, framing her porcelain heart-shaped face. She was wearing a satin red dress and stiletto heels. Definitely not a “Jackie Original,” but approvable for anybody to view.

Once Jackie was done touching up my makeup—giving me a soft, smoky eye and light baby pink lips—she clapped her hands with glee and pushed me towards the door, hardly giving me a chance to see my reflection in the mirror at the supposed masterpiece she had created.

“Can’t I at least grab some Tylenol from the cabinet in the bathroom if you expect me to go out there and face that blaring uproar you call music?” I begged as I clutched the side of my face.

“ I’ll get it. You go mingle and I’ll meet you by the refreshments in a few. Go!” she ordered as I was shoved out the doors, my mind running at a hundred miles per hour. When did she get to be so bossy? I was just about to protest before she closed my door and I unwillingly turned around.

Only to be met by a pair of smoldering midnight eyes.

Submitted: September 09, 2015

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