S E P I A
All it takes is someone to see past the scars.
From the fleeting safety of her blankets, Marie took the time to stare at her blemished hands, using the flashlight she kept hidden under her mattress. With her pale fingertip, she traced the scars along her forearms, old and new ones alike, pretending each and every one of them were memories of past adventures. She followed the red lines of her mother's wooden ruler, marked so deep across her wrist, she could almost see the numbers printed onto her skin.
Her mother's footsteps echoed in the hallway and she promptly flipped the light off, tucked it underneath her pillow and laid still—with one arm above the covers, she was the perfect picture of a sleeping child.
Sure enough, she heard the door creak open. One, two, three, four, five Mississippi—the door closed again, and low heels clicked away.
Marie dug back into her nest, this time, pulling out something else far more valuable from inside her left sock.
I've been so excited about delivering this letter, I haven't gotten a wink of sleep all week. I bet you're dying of curiosity at this point, so I'll stop beating around the bush—here's the big news:
I believe my sister and I found a way for us to hang out during the summer.
I know, crazy right?? Well, it might just be crazy enough to work! Meet me at our spot tomorrow at lunch break, I'll explain everything.
Toothy grin stretching her cheeks, Marie folded the letter and slipped it back into her sock, hugging the blankets to her chest like she would a teddy bear.
She had a feeling sleep wouldn't greet her tonight, either.
Bessie's face scrunched up as she scrutinized the brochure—as far as she knew, an informative leaflet for Sweetwater's Catholic Summer Day Camp for the Children of Tomorrow and nothing more. Marie fought the need to bite her nails and, from under the table, tugged at the sleeves of her buttoned-up cotton shirt instead.
Even though the brochure looked legitimate as could be, Marie could only hope it would fool her mother's preying eyes. A part of her feared that it would be too easy to piece everything together—to smell the scent of teenage deceit. She thought back to Florence's older sister making the brochure from scratch in between college classes at the Xerox place, and gulped. She didn't even want to think about the severity of her mother's wrath if she were to find out just what her daughter had secretly been up to.
At last, Bessie sighed, and Marie felt her blood pressure spike.
"Marie," the severe lines on her forehead deepened. "We don't have the funds for such a luxury. Staying home to study the bible costs nothing."
Marie's stomach dropped in fear of irrevocable prohibition. "Oh, but mother, this camp is free. They wish for nothing more than to guide the children of Catholic families, and thought I was a good candidate."
Her mother's forehead smoothed, if only for a split second. "Free?"
Bingo. Marie innocently nodded, but inwardly high-fived herself. If there was something Bessie Carmine valued nearly as much as her faith, it was saving money. She absolutely hated spending for things she didn't view of absolute necessity, and only provided their housing with the bare minimum. Marie firmly believed a stranger could walk in their house and think they had been sent straight into the 1800s.
"Hm." Bessie played with the hair on her chin, something she always did unconsciously, and folded the brochure to read the number on the back. The number to Florence's sister, Penelope, who was practically jumping up and down at the prospect of putting those acting lessons to good use. "I suppose I'll give them a call and ask about their teachings."
Marie watched as her mother rose from her seat, and finally released the breath she'd been holding.
There was hope. Real, tangible hope.
When the yellow bus stopped in front of their house, Marie had to tame her excitement. Don't drop the act until you're in the bus and at least a mile away from here, she told herself.
"Remember, keep to yourself and listen attentively," Bessie repeated her own sermon as she checked the collar buttons of Marie's shirt. "You're not there to make friends."
Marie stayed a blank as a canvas. "Yes, mother."
She walked onto the porch, down the stairs, and over to the bus with controlled, calculated steps. When she climbed in, she nodded to Marcus, Penelope's boyfriend who had obviously cleaned up well for this new role of bus driver, and hid her amused smirk as she sat down in the first row of seats.
The inside of the vehicle remained completely silent until Marcus turned at the corner of the street. Suddenly, all hell broke lose—Marie whipped her head around with a huge smile on her face, and heard both Florence and Penelope's cheers erupt from the back.
Florence jumped out of her seat and ran to Marie, giggling and clapping her hands at the blatant success of their plan. Penny took off her costume—a long skirt and knitted sweater—to reveal a tank top and jeans shorts, pulling her hair our of her low pony tail and ruffling some volume back into her permanent.
"Alright, girls!" She swayed her hips as she walked up to Marcus, already painting her lips a bright shade of red before planting a kiss on his neck. She plumped her lips and retrieved a pair of loop earrings from her pocket. "I hope you're both ready for a summer of F-U-N!" Both Marie and Florence cheered like fangirls at a U2 concert.
Marie couldn't contain her delight. She didn't know how to ride a bike, nor how to roller skate. She'd never gone to the movies, or to the beach, or out for milkshakes, but today was just the beginning.
As she tried singing along to Aretha Franklin's Freeway of Love which blasted through the speakers, her voice cracked, and both her and Florence burst out laughing. She didn't think she could ever get enough of the melody in Florence's laugh, or the green or her eyes, or the gold of her hair.
This was going to be the summer of a lifetime, and for once, her mother didn't control the wire over her head.
"I can't believe we're going to be seniors soon," Florence mused as she painted Marie's fingernails, each one a different color. "It just seems so... grown up, y'know?"
The park buzzed with bumble bees but lacked the typical summer time crowd, which Marie found herself extremely thankful for—no one around to fear, hide from, or judge them. After the first two weeks, Penny and Marcus had stopped tagging along, sticking to playing taxi and driving the girls around in that gaudy ride of theirs.
Marie scoffed, taking a lick of her chocolate and vanilla soft serve ice cream. "Tell me about it. I keep thinking my mother's gonna pull me out of public school to lock me inside."
Florence looked up, her golden locks flowing so freely in the breeze, it reminded Marie of a wild mustang. Beautiful and unbound.
"She better not," Florence retorted, playfully poking Marie's ribs. "Or else I'm gonna have to meddle in."
"You mean more than you already have?" Marie laughed.
Florence cocked her head, leaned forward and winked. "That's right!"
Marie couldn't help the blush that crept up her neck and shyly pulled at her sleeve. That seemed to attract Florence's attention, whose face suddenly fell serious.
"You sure you don't want a t-shirt? It's like a hundred degrees today."
Avoiding eye contact, Marie nibbled her bottom lip and brushed her frizzy hair back. "Nah, I'm okay."
"Marie..." Florence's beaded bracelets jangled together as she pulled back. "You know I don't mind them, right?"
The galaxy of moles and freckles on her shoulder prickled, and Marie self-consciously scratched at it. She didn't need Florence to say it out loud, it was painfully obvious what she was referring to.
"I know, but... they're just... ugly, that's all."
She tried to give a dismissive laugh, one which fell flat.
"Not to me." Florence countered in a soft voice. She touched Marie's chin, gently bringing the shameful pair of brown eyes back to face her. "It's part of you, and that makes it beautiful."
Marie's heart began beating so fast, she thought it would burst out of her chest, leap across the park, fly into the clouds and reach the moon.
"You're too nice to me," was all she could manage to answer.
Florence dropped her hand, letting an easy smile graze her lips as she knowingly shrugged, as though she knew secrets no one else did. "Just telling the truth." She then got up, brushed the dirt off her shorts and grabbed her purple backpack.
"C'mon," she peeped, as carefree as always. "I'm starving."
Disregarding the fact that she was still working on her ice cream cone, Marie threw caution to the wind and grabbed Florence's hand, smiling to herself as their fingers interlocked.
Three months passed by in the blink of an eye, with every day being even more wonderful than the last. The first day of classes was rapidly approaching, and Sweetwater Catholic Day Camp had to end somehow, something which soured Marie's mood every time she laid still long enough to think about it.
She'd had a taste of truly, unforgivingly living—how could she possibly go back to the restraint of her mother's chains? To embarrassingly allowing herself to be mutilated by her own kin? Even at school, people would go back to judging her from a distance, to whispering at the sight of her unruly mop of hair or laughing at the ridiculously conservative outfits her mother made her wear.
No matter how she looked at it, Marie saw a single ray of hope in her life.
"Where are we going?"
Florence didn't let the cat out of the bag, keeping her curved lips sealed as she lead Marie through a path in the forest. Branches stood in their way and grass tickled their ankles, but it only made the journey that much more intriguing.
"You'll see," she said, teasing a little.
After what seemed like hours or hiking, Marie was finally ushered past a wall of leaves. She looked up, a little out of breath, and felt her heart skip a beat.
Under the shade of a weeping willow, a picnic had been set up—a blanket in the grass, basket filled with treats, and a bouquet of wildflowers in the middle. Marie felt tears sting her eyes and turned to Florence with wide, dazzled eyes.
"What is all this?"
"This," Florence's voice sounded a little heavy with emotion. "Is for the last day of our '86 summer." She plucked a flower from the vase, holding it between the two of them. "And a marigold, because it represents the beginning of us, together."
A tear fell down Marie's cheek, one which she quickly wiped away. She smiled through it, noting the shade of Florence's golden hair next to the bright flower petals—like identical twins.
"In a year we'll be eighteen," Florence continued, blinking away tears herself. "We'll be free to move out, explore the world together, and we won't have to hide from anyone, not even your mother."
Florence tucked the flower behind Marie's ear, her voice trembling with vulnerability, then reached down to hold hands. "So, what do you say?"
Marie laughed, sad tears turned joyful in a matter of seconds, because that was the magic of Florence—her words, smile, touch, presence in itself worked in ways no one else's could.
She was right. This was just the beginning.