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Balm of Briar

by sarah martineau 5 months ago in monster

By: Sarah Martineau

The sterile white walls of the chapel seemed to go on forever as Anne’s eyes studied them, finding vaguely familiar shapes in the stucco. A cloud, a rose, and the devil himself were hidden in plain sight amongst the congregation. Anne, entranced by the shapes of the stucco, dared not to make eye contact with those around her. Anytime Anne managed to make eye contact with the members sat beside her, she could sense the weight of their scorn. The hiss in every ‘Amen’ whispered by the congregation throughout the sermon made her recoil even more behind a tattered hymn book. Avoiding eye contact with the members, her eyes searched for a new focal point other than her father leading the sermon and the stiff elderly Sunday Christians wrapped in silk and wool. Anne pulled at the loose stitching of her shapeless beige dress while she became entranced with the dust that glittered as it swirled in the ethereal chapel light. How can a simple thing such as dust be so beautiful? Anne wondered.

“Let us not be distracted by the devil’s temptations!” the pastor roared as he banged his hands on the podium.

“It is in our soul’s best interest to fully submerge our minds in the teachings of the Lord God himself.” the pastor said.

Anne immediately straightened her posture and steadied her focus on her father’s sermon. She blushed a deep red rouge as the girls in her pew snickered at her spineless cowardice. The elderly members in the pews surrounding her shook their heads at Anne’s blatant disrespect.

“Brothers and sisters, children of the Lord, let us end today with a reminder that earthly idolatry and vanity are the downfall of man. Like Job, we must put faith in the Lord that we will be saved no matter our physical or mental afflictions. Let us close with a prayer.” the pastor relented.

Anne’s father began to mumble a long drawn out prayer into the microphone. Anne watched those around her bow their heads, and for a moment felt relief that the sermon was over. Finally, she could indulge in a moment of peace from feeling the eyes of the members leave the back of her head. This moment abruptly ended when the girl sat beside her gave her a hard kick to the shin.

“Close your eyes dumbass.” The girl’s sweet voice whispered.

Anne shut her eyes tightly and said a quiet sarcastic prayer to herself. “Please God, or anything else in this world that could possibly help me, end my pain. I am dust now, but with a miracle, I can glitter too.”

The pastor finished his mumbling prayer with an abrupt “Amen” and the swarm of Sunday Christians began to crowd the exit. Anne rose with the rest in her pew, struggling to navigate the sea of members surrounding her.

“Anne come here, I want to talk to you about being attentive during my sermons.” , Her father said as he followed her.

“Again? I have to use the bathroom first.” she said, stumbling over her own words.

Anne tried her hardest to shake off the anxiety of the consequences following the familiar lecture that was coming. She thought of every which way the conversation would go as she made her way to the bathroom, and every situation she thought of ended in serving a sermon herself. A proposition pushed by her pushy preacher father she’d grown to be quite familiar with. Anne swung the bathroom door open, running into the same girls from her pew. Anne immediately stopped in her tracks and froze as their eyes glanced over to her. Their once tart, disingenuous smiles turned to repugnance. All aside from their front-woman, who made her way to Anne from the other end of the bathroom.

“Out space-case, we’re at maximum capacity.” , Carolyn snapped.

“I’ll didn’t realize you all were in here.” , Anne whispered.

“That’s okay, most of the time I don’t realize you are here.” , Carolyn taunted.

Anne paused for a long time, slowly backing herself up against the door. Boxed in the single stall bathroom, Anne pawed at the door handle while the group of girls encircled her. Lionesses, ready to go in for a passive aggressive kill.

“Why are you standing there with that dumb look on your face? Spacing out again?” , Carolyn said.

“Never mind, your face has always looked like that. I had some hope for you when we were little, but some people never manage to grow into their looks.” , Carolyn laughed.

Anne’s face became flushed, eyes welling up with tears as the group of girls burst into an uproar of laughter. They struggled to contain their amusement as they held to the wall behind them for support.

“Here space-case, this will help cover up that dumb look on your face!” Olivia, Carolyn’s smug brunette friend teased.

The group of girls reached into their purses and began to throw what little makeup they had brought with them at Anne. If sensory overload from the congregation wasn’t enough to overwhelm Anne’s social anxiety, the taunting was about to throw her over the edge. The hem of Anne’s dress and white tile of the bathroom became splattered with foundation, eyeliner, and red lipstick. The mirror on the wall behind Anne cracked from her hitting the back of her head against it, fearing one of the products may hit her face. Anne’s cheeks became scarlet with embarrassment.

“God, you are pathetic! We’re just trying to help that plain face of yours!” ,Carolyn said.

The group of girls briskly walked out of the bathroom as to not get caught for the mess they had just made of both the bathroom and Anne’s emotional state.

As soon as Anne was alone, she sunk to her knees. She looked down at makeup piled on the tile. She studied the products carefully, reading the label’s directions on each piece. She carried them with her to the bathroom counter, where she sat and looked at herself in the mirror. Hands shaking, she smeared a thick layer of foundation many shades off from her skin tone onto her cheeks followed by a swipe of petal pink blush. The makeup caked underneath her overgrown nails as she rubbed eyeliner over her lids, and over lined her lips in red lipstick. But it still wasn’t enough. Even the dim yellow bathroom lighting couldn’t mask the harshly blended blush swipes.

"How do they do this so easily? Why don’t I look like them?", She thought as she balled.

Her eyeliner dripped down her waterline as she sank to her knees. Anne tried the breathing exercises the chapel therapist gave her for when she felt anxious, and slowly she began to self sooth with grounding. With clarity, she picked up a small round tin from the floor she hadn’t noticed till now beside her foot, and began to study the product just as she did with the others before.

The tin had what Anne guessed was an ingredient list written in German on the back, with briar bushes caressing the name on the front. The only English on the tin was the name of the product, reading “Balm of Briar: now with extra strength”.

Just like her mother’s jar of Pond’s at home, she used her knuckle to grab some of the balm from the tin. She figured the balm was some foreign cold cream for cleansing, and she was ready to wash off the caked layers of drugstore makeup. It felt heavy and oily on her hand, with the stench of fermented rose petals filling the stagnant air of the small bathroom. Due to the dim yellowed lighting of the bathroom, the balm seemed to have no discernible color.

Anne stood up and struggled to make eye contact with her reflection. Her blemished complexion and stringy strawberry blonde hair were embarrassing as is, but her application of makeup was far more unsettling to face so up close.

She smoothed the balm over either cheek, and from forehead to chin. Anne ran hot water as she massaged the balm into her skin, beginning to cleanse the caked-on makeup off of her face.

Soon she emptied the last of the balm onto her face and began to massage the heavy oily mess into her skin again. Her face began to sting, and her stomach knotted realizing she was massaging foreign chemicals into her delicate skin.

"Oh no, I should’ve done a patch test. I think I used too much." , Anne thought.

Panic began to set in, with trembling hands Anne twisted the faucet knob as hard as she could to the right for cold water. The terror in her heart almost brought her to her knees, realizing if she had any allergic reaction she’d be alone in the chapel bathroom with no one to help her.

The more she attempted to wash off the balm, the softer her complexion became. Minutes passed, her hands and face slippery with the heavy oil of the balm. She massaged her face until it became numb, and felt more malleable than ever.

Anne began to wail out to her father, who was still waiting for her in the congregation hall entryway, on the other side of the building. The pastor heard faint screams from down the long narrow hall, and ran to the women’s restroom.

The pastor swung the door open so hard it practically came off the hinges. Tripping over the makeup products strewn across the floor, the pastor rushed to Anne, lifting her slippery face from the sink filled with frigid water.

“Anne, you know you aren’t supposed to wear makeup.” , He lectured, clearing the counter of the products beside her.

Anne turned her head towards him slowly. She smiled wide, a slight chuckle forcing her father to take a few steps back.

“I know father, that’s why I tried to washed it off.” she said.

Hanging off Anne’s cheekbones was what was left of her skin. Blood had coursed down her day dress, staining it in its entirety. The sink pooled with briar balm and remnants of her old plain face, where at the very bottom of the chunky mixture was the tin itself. The counter stained with Anne’s handprints, where she struggled to maintain her balance when the harrowing stinging began.

Breathless, her father knelt to the ground and held his hand over his heart, murmuring a prayer in vain begging for God to heal Anne. Anne wrapped her arms around his neck, a seemingly vain act of comfort. Little did her father know, with the grace of God vanity left Anne completely, and she was no longer in pain. She was glittering too.


sarah martineau

Sarah Martineau is currently a junior at Nevada State College where she studies a double major of History: Pre-Law, and Creative Writing, and is active in her university's Blue Sage Writer's Guild, local ballet company, and Phi Alpha Theta.

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