Les Femmes Noires One-Shot Contest
Title: Modern Medusa
Your pen name: Feisty Y. Beden
Disclaimer: I don't own any of this except possibly the gauze and the scissors. I do have an old tube of Neosporin.
To see other entries in Les Femmes Noires Contest, please visit the C2 page:
Do you know what it's like to be adored by everyone you meet? To have people drawn to you, want to touch your perfectly bouncy hair and brush your cheek with the back of their hand?
Do you know what it's like to get anything you want, whenever you want? To make people do anything you want them to do and make them think it's their own idea?
It's been like this my whole life. I thought everyone lived this way. I thought everyone was rich and lived in a huge house and was used to being worshipped.
That is, until I started school. Actually, the only thing that changed after that was that I realized that not everyone was rich. I still got whatever I wanted. The teachers doted upon me. It didn't matter if I did my homework or not. I still got praised for being perfect. All I had to do was smile and shake my bronze curls, springy and pliable despite their metallic sheen. If there ever were teachers who weren't charmed by that alone, I just touched them, placed a palm gently on their skin. I showed them what they wanted to see. Pretty things. They'd smile dreamily and forget they were cross about my failure to complete my assignment or for getting up to use the bathroom without asking for a hall pass.
It was easy, really. All you had to do was close your eyes and focus on the person, find out what he or she wanted most, a crossing of senses, like when a snake darts its tongue out to smell the air around it through taste. When I closed my eyes, I could feel the desires of every person in the room, as if I had a thousand forked tongues. Maybe I did, tiny, invisible forked tongues coming out of my hair as if I were a Medusa.
Medusa wasn't ugly, you know. She was beautiful, stunningly so, no pun intended. She was beautiful and terrifying at once. Maybe she was so beautiful that it was sensory overload. Maybe people were turned to stone because they overdosed on beauty. Was it her fault? Was it her choice? Did she have control over it, over her terrifying beauty, her beautiful frightfulness? Was it the fire burning in her, fire of anger, of hate, of rage?
Was it my fault I knew how to persuade people?
I remember my first day of kindergarten. Mommy and Daddy were holding me so close. "Be careful, sweetie," Mommy had said with that worried look on her face.
Daddy just patted me on the shoulder. "Make me proud."
I wasn't sure what any of it meant, and I had no idea why they both looked so anxious. "Our baby girl," I thought I heard one whisper to the other. I could see their sorrow, their wistfulness, when I closed my eyes, but my child's brain didn't understand it. I shrugged and ran into the room, confused and eager at all the different thoughts swirling around me. So many new minds, with childish thoughts like my own! It was like a playground, a candy store of new smells and emotions. Emotions have different flavors—did you know that? Joy is sweet and milky. Excitement is tangy. Fear tastes like acid. Hate … well hate just tastes like a night with no stars. That's the only way I can explain it.
It was exciting meeting new people. For so long, Mommy and Daddy and the rest of Daddy's family had had me hidden away. I saw the same people daily, my life an endless rerun. The same flavors, sweet and milky, mostly, although the flavor was slightly different from person to person. The tart, crisp, angular sweetness of an apple versus the teeth-hurting gooeyness of a caramel. Aunt Alice's joy tasted like Pop Rocks, crackling and bubbling on my tongue.
But Grandpa Charlie had said, "What about school? Children need to be socialized." And Grandpa Carlisle had agreed, so I was put in school that fall, even though Daddy tasted like acid and something else, something prickly and dark.
The teacher loved me immediately, but I was used to that. The other children were drawn to me too. During free play, one girl had grabbed the best doll, the one with the eyes that opened and shut like a real baby. "I want it," I said.
"I'm playing now. You wait your turn," she said.
What was that? What was this waiting business? I closed my eyes and tasted the air around her, and I could see how she was scared of spiders. So I touched her arm and made her see spiders crawling out of the doll's open mouth and the glassy eyes that open and shut. She screamed and threw the doll on the floor. I don't know where she went after that, but I picked up the doll and played with her the whole rest of free play. I could hear her screams fade into soft sobbing and then quiet gasping, but I didn't see her. I was tending to my precious baby with the eyes that opened and shut. I was being a good mommy.
I always got what I wanted. I thought it was because I was the prettiest, the most perfect. That's what my family always told me, anyway.
Everything was so easy.
Until he came. No one ever moved to Forks, but there was all this buzz about a new student transferring from the East Coast somewhere. The teachers' minds tasted like bergamot, mysterious and perfumed with the fresh gossip of an overdose, a child left orphaned, who had a distant relation living in Forks. His last living relative, an old bachelor uncle.
His name was Percy.
I hadn't seen him, but I knew the day he had started class, because all the girls were chattering like silly squirrels about the new boy. Based on their thoughts, he was handsome and shy, but strong and lean. I dismissed these images, their fascination. When you can control everyone around you, what's another doll to play with?
But then at lunch I saw him. He walked through the lunchroom, and the crowd of teenagers parted, eddies in the Red Sea. I saw him, his beautiful chiseled face, his carefully rumpled layers. It took a lot of effort to look that casual. His hair was long in the front and fell into his eyes. I couldn't tell the color, but I could see his dark eyelashes peeking through his light brown hair.
And in that moment, it was like time stopped, and it was just me and him in this room. Like we were the only ones alive in a garden of people statues, the only two people left alive after a nuclear holocaust.
As a reflex, I closed my eyes and tried to taste the air around him. He tasted … like nothing. Not a thing. Just air and blankness and absence.
I pressed my hands to my temples. Maybe I was overtired. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on the other people in the room, the dolls, the statues. I could taste each one clearly. I could even identify who was where in the room, just based on the way they flavored the air with their wants and fears.
I turned my attention again toward him, toward this Percy, and … still nothing.
Maybe it was because he was new. Or from out of town. Maybe I needed to be closer to get a good reading.
I strode toward him with my tray. He was sitting at a table with the class president, who had appointed himself the guy's "friendship buddy" to get him through the first few days. Ugh. Brian. He tasted cloyingly sweet all the time, sweeter than sugar. He was so uncomplicated, so one-note. There was no fun in pushing him, because he was nice to everyone.
I plunked my tray down. "Mind if I sit here?" I asked, my voice ringing out like a bell. I knew this was the voice that no one could resist.
Brian smiled, and I nearly gagged at the rush of sweetness that overcame me. "Of course, Nessie."
I ignored him and stared at Percy. His eyes were blue, blue like the churning Pacific. I wanted to jump in, to drown in his eyes. I was closer now. Could I taste him? I closed my eyes again and focused hard.
It was like running into a brick wall, just this resistance. Maybe I would have to touch him.
"I read palms," I said suddenly. "Want me to read yours?"
"Okay," he said, crinkling his face and tentatively holding out his hand.
I snatched it greedily and turned it over so it was palm up. I put my palm on his and tried to see. Nothing. I tried to put a picture in his head of the feeling I had when I saw him from across the room. Again, nothing. It was worse than nothing—not only could I not feel my feelings travel from skin to skin, from heart to brain, I also forgot in that moment what it had felt like to see him the first time. It was sucked out of me as if the memory had been biopsied. I snatched my hand away, gasping. As soon as I no longer touched him, my memory came flooding back again, that feeling of the garden of statues, of the nuclear holocaust. Of the two of us, interlocking parts, the only ones on the earth who mattered.
"What do you see?" he asked, curious and friendly.
"Nothing," I mumbled, confused. What was happening to me?
"I hope that doesn't mean I'm, like, going to die tomorrow," he said with a nervous laugh. I wanted to wrap myself up in his laugh the way I used to hide under Mommy's cashmere cloak when I was small. I wanted to taste the laugh. I imagined it would be like pumpkin spice and mulled cider. But I tasted nothing, and in the next moment, I couldn't even remember what his laugh had sounded like.
"Of course not," I snapped, desperately trying to hold the shreds of the rapidly disintegrating memory to me. It was like that feeling of willing yourself to hold onto a wonderful dream, to command yourself not to wake up. But it, like those dreams, melted away, transformed from lacy, delicate snow to a common puddle, dingy and gray in my cupped hand.
Percy was perplexing.
I ended up going through the minds of the people who became his friends to learn more about him. I could almost taste him through their thoughts, but it was a sad imitation, a copy of a copy, about as real as the artificial grape flavor in soda: that strange flavor that was created from chemicals in a lab could never begin to describe the sweet burst of a red grape in your mouth, the tartness of the grape skin, the soft flesh inside, the juice running down your throat. But still, I learned things. He was kind. He was troubled. He missed his mother.
I searched and searched his friends' thoughts, hoping to see my face.
But I was never there.
I laughed ruefully to myself when I thought of it, the old legends of vampires not being able to see themselves in the mirror. I, the daughter of a vampire, had no reflection in Percy. I did not exist in his mind.
I was satisfied enough, though, knowing that no other girl was in his thoughts. Until one day, I saw in his friends' thoughts a blurry face, a pert nose. I wasn't sure at first, but day by day the image grew more in focus.
I think Percy has a thing for Caroline, I tasted from Brian.
Caroline Grady was one of those perfect girls. She was like the female Brian. People did what she wanted because she was nice. She smiled, she told jokes, and she hugged people when they needed hugs.
Yeah, like hugging could fix anything.
I thought she was plain, nowhere as pretty as I was, but I saw how she looked through other people's thoughts: beautiful, radiant. To me, her face was dull, practically lifeless.
I got inklings, scraps of thoughts, of little things Percy had said about Caroline, about looks they'd exchanged. How someone had seen them holding hands at a movie over the weekend. Percy is going to ask Caroline to prom, I heard in half a dozen people's thoughts.
I would stop this. I knew what happened at proms. I was a junior and had been around two years of class-wide prom hormones (musky, overpowering, desperate, spicy). I could not let this happen.
"Hey," I said to Caroline when I saw her in the hallway. "Gosh, you look so pretty today." I grabbed her arm with my hand and felt the tingle when our skin pressed together. It was just a suggestion, a tiny seed of something. I gave her a taste of my jealousy, of how much I hated myself for not being as beautiful as she was. I might have tweaked my thoughts a little before I put them in her mind.
"Thanks, Nessie. You're sweet," she said, but her eyes had faded a little, and she seemed confused and a little sad.
I was in math when I heard the screaming from the art room next door. I heard the door swing open, tasted the panic flooding from the room, heard the clacking of the art teacher's heels on the linoleum. "Get the nurse!" she told the class as she ran down the hallway, presumably to the principal's office.
Foolish woman. She shouldn't have left Caroline, even if she'd taken her scissors away, even if the strongest boys were restraining her arms. There were always more scissors. There was always more strength and speed, when one was determined.
Caroline needed sixteen stitches to sew the gashes on her cheeks shut. Grandpa Carlisle used black thread in the emergency room, and she looked like a monstrous rag doll. She was going to be kept in the hospital, in the psychiatric ward, for months. She would miss prom for sure.
That night, after Grandpa Carlisle got home and whispered worriedly to the family, Mommy looked at me a little suspiciously.
"Renesmee," Mommy began, "is there anything you want to tell us? Anything going on in school?"
"No, of course not, Mommy," I said, shrugging. "School's school."
"What about the Grady girl? Caroline, is it? Do you know why she did that to herself?"
"I think she thought she was too pretty," I said. "She didn't like the attention." I ran to Mommy and wrapped my arms around her waist. "I love you, Mommy," I said, leaning my head on her shoulder. I put my hand on her face, and her golden eyes went calm again.
"You're my sweet Renesmee," she said, kissing the top of my head and pulling on one of my curls playfully.
Daddy was a little trickier. He'd been out all day, hunting. "You," he said as soon as he'd come home and heard Grandpa Carlisle's thoughts, the recap of his day. "What did you have to do with this?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Daddy," I said, letting my eyes fill up with tears. "It's awful. Caroline's so nice."
"What did you do to her?"
"Oh, Daddy." I rolled my eyes at him. He tasted like a cactus, prickly and tough. He tried to stop me, but I was too fast for him. I hugged him tightly, my hands pressed to the cool marble of the back of his neck as I leaned in to kiss his cheek. I made him remember the first time he heard me in Mommy's belly, how he hadn't wanted me to be born, but then he loved me so much and didn't care what might happen.
"My little angel," he said with glittering eyes, sending me off to my room.
Percy had bandaged hands the next day in school. I heard the students and teachers all murmuring, He put both fists through a wall after his uncle told him that he wasn't allowed to visit Caroline in the hospital. He was deflated, his arms hanging limply at his sides.
I wanted to kiss his cut hands, taste the blood still oozing there. I wanted to unwrap the gauze from his hands slowly, winding it around and around into a giant coil on the floor like some crazy South American python we'd learned about in bio. I wanted to kneel in front of him and put his bruised hands to my face.
"I'm sorry about Caroline," I said as I saw him leaning dejectedly against his locker before first bell.
"Are you?" he said, his eyes cold.
"Let's go somewhere," I said. "Let's hide in my car."
He was so lost that it was easy to lead him to the student parking lot. I'd take care of our first period teachers later. They wouldn't even know we'd been gone.
I held his hand gently, tenderly. I could smell the iron from his blood under the gauze, and the clean, medicinal smell of the ointment. "Are they broken?" I asked.
"Don't think so," he said, "but my uncle wouldn't take me to the hospital, since that's what I wanted in the first place."
"Well, that's messed up," I said, and he laughed like a crazy person.
"Hey," I said, tugging a little on the gauze on his left hand. There was a little piece of medical tape holding the gauze together, and I picked at it with a fingernail until it came undone. "I want to see."
I unwrapped his hand slowly, like a groom undressing his bride. I worshipped every new bit of exposed skin with my eyes, with my heart, with my life. "So beautiful," I said when his hand was finally bare, shining with ointment.
He sat there like a lost child. He wouldn't even look at me.
I unbuttoned his shirt and ran my hand over his smooth, firm chest. Warm, so warm, not like my family. Grandpa Charlie didn't count, because he was hairier than a bear. Percy's chest was so smooth. I leaned in and kissed his breastbone. I ran a finger down his ribcage. I dragged my hands underneath his shirt on his back until I reached his bony, perfect shoulderblades.
He just sat, allowing me to look at him, to touch him, but not responding.
"So beautiful," I said again, reaching to undo the buttons on his jeans.
"Caroline's still beautiful. I won't care if she has scars," he said, his mind locked and far away.
"Get out," I said. He wouldn't move. I dressed him, buttoned his shirt back up, as if he were a doll. "Out!" I said again. He didn't budge.
I leaned over him and opened the door. "Get out!" I shrieked, pushing him roughly out of the car.
I heard a dull thud as he hit the asphalt. I expected to hear shuffling, and then see his tall form walk away, walk back to the building. I waited. I wasn't going to look. I wasn't going to look. I wasn't going to look.
Finally I couldn't wait any longer. I leaned out the open door and saw him still lying there, flat on his back. He was gazing at the sky.
"That cloud reminds me of Caroline," he sighed. He wouldn't look at me. Suddenly his voice changed. "There's blackness in you, Nessie Cullen," he said in a clear voice, angular, cutting. My blood went cold.
"I'm good," I insisted. "I'm a good girl." He got to his feet and slammed the door in my face.
"I don't think so," he said loudly enough to travel through the glass, and then he snapped back to that lost look.
As if he'd just woken up, he lazily brushed sand and grit from his hair and the seat of his pants. He slowly began to weave his way back toward the building, his legs unsteady.
I was crying—why? I tasted my own anger, burning through me like tongues of fire. Through blurred vision, I saw the coil of white on the floor—his discarded gauze. I grabbed it, dabbing my eyes with the ointment-soaked cloth. Patches of the gauze were brown from old blood. I put my tongue on it, but I could taste only salt and iron and the bitterness of the ointment. I still couldn't taste him.
I wound the gauze around and around my wrist tightly, watching my hand turn red and purple, until it pulsed like a heart. My pulse beat against his dead, dried blood, and that would have to do. That would have to be enough.
I curled up in the backseat, clutching my pulsing hand to my chest, welcoming the pain. If I could keep my heart here, in my hand, maybe it wouldn't hurt so much in the inside.
There's blackness in you, Nessie Cullen.
His words kept ringing in my memory. I didn't want to be in my head anymore.
I'm a good girl. He's wrong. I'm a good girl, I repeated to myself to clear my mind. I closed my eyes and tasted the air, feeling the air with a thousand flicks of my thousand forked tongues.
But in the enclosed space of my car, all I could taste was my own inky, starless night.