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A Gift from Above
Margaret Fuller had forgotten how clear the Arizona night sky could be. Against a backdrop of purple-black velvet, stars shimmered brilliantly, as if God had spilled great handfuls of tiny diamonds across the sky.
Her new Lexus hummed smoothly along the Interstate, which appeared to be virtually deserted. Margaret hadn't seen another eastbound car since she'd crossed the border, and only a scant few heading west.
She preferred driving to any other mode of transportation, and when she drove she preferred to drive at night, so she'd left Los Angeles late in the day. She found it soothing to drive at night, when the traffic was thin and the air was cool and clear, so clear that she could pick up the staticky ghosts of radio stations in Idaho and Colorado. Best of all, it was just Margaret and the road, with no one to tell her what to do, how to drive, or to comment on how she looked; it seemed like three times a week or so at work that somebody said to her: "Were you up late last night," or "Are you feeling well, Margaret? You look tired." But in the car, on the road, there was no one to say anything at all, and she loved that, savored it.
Margaret had been in Arizona a little under an hour and Los Angeles was well behind her, and that made her feel a little more relaxed than usual. But at the same time, without her work to think and worry about, she had plenty of empty time to think about what she was getting herself into.
That's why the radio was turned up so loud. A smoke-voiced female talk-show host was talking to a woman from Boulder City, Nevada, who was complaining about the fact that, although they were both in theirthirties, she and her sister still had the same petty competitive relationship they'd had since they were kids.
Margaret laughed quietly as she shook a cigarette from its pack with one hand, put it between her lips and lit it.
"You're only in your thirties, honey," she muttered as the conversation on the radio continued. She shook her head slowly, smiling. "Let's see if it lasts as long for you as it has for me."
Margaret's sister Lynda -- now Lynda Donelly, although she was divorced from what Margaret had heard -- was dying of cancer. Stomach cancer. But it had spread. A lot. Like peanut butter, from what she'd heard.
They had been out of touch for years, which had been just fine with Margaret. But then Aunt Bedelia had called one day and told her about Lynda's condition. She'd talked for a long time without ever giving Margaret a chance to respond. In fact, as Margaret saw it, Aunt Bedelia had chewed her a new asshole. Aunt Bedelia was confined to a wheelchair and lived in North Platte, Nebraska, so she wasn't up to traveling, but she didn't hesitate to remind Margaret that she could travel, that she could go to Harlie without any problem, what with her having money and all. She'd said that Lynda's ex-husband had remarried and was having nothing to do with her now in her time of trouble. And she'd said if Margaret really believed that whatever animosity had existed between herself and Lynda for so long was more important than the fact that her own sister was dying all alone ... well, then, Margaret would just have to live with that weighing on her conscience for the rest of her natural life.
That was why she was returning to her hometown of Harlie, Arizona. It wasn't just because of Aunt Bedelia's usual pushiness and her exquisite ability to make anyone at any time -- even a total stranger -- feel as guilty as the Roman soldier who drove the nails through Jesus Christ. She'd had no idea Lynda was dying. Now that she knew, she felt a little differently about things. Something inside her really wanted to see Lynda, and, if possible, to smooth over the bitterness Margaret had felt toward her ever since they were little girls. That was not going to be easy... but it was a hell of a lot harder to compromise with death than it was to hold a grudge.
The bitterness had been growing for as long as Margaret could remember. It probably started as soon as Margaret and Lynda -- who was three years older than she -- were just old enough for everyone to see that Lynda was the petite and pretty one, with those big brown eyes and that full, wavy dark hair, and that Margaret was the clumsy, gangly, homely one, with flat, washed out hair and eyes that not only did not stand out but seemed to try to hide from any exposure. From that moment on, their parents treated them accordingly, and seemed to expect Margaret and Lynda to treat one another accordingly; in other words, Margaret was expected to defer to Lynda, and Lynda was expected to be deferred to by Margaret. Then, as they got older, Margaret got fat. Suddenly, she wasn't only the homely one, she was the fat one, and Lynda simply grew more and more beautiful with each passing year.
Sometimes, when Margaret got so fed up with being reminded by her sister that she was fat, she would snap. Unable to articulate her pain and anger and loneliness, she would simply let out a long, shrill scream, as if she were being attacked or beaten. Later, when she was calm, Lynda would lead her to the full-length mirror, where she would stand behind Margaret, and she would say. "I only said you were fat. Now look at yourself, Margaret. Just look at yourself. Am I wrong? Was I lying? No. I wasn't lying. You are fat. All I'm saying is that if you don't want people to call you fat, then you should lose weight. Go on a diet, start exercising or some thing. But remember... I didn't say anything that wasn't true." No, she had not, and knowing that fact made Margaret's days miserable. But it wasn't until they reached high school that she realized her troubles were only beginning.
In high school, Margaret had managed to snag only one boyfriend. His name was Albert Huffman and he wasn't really good-looking, but he wasn't a nerd, either. He was -- at first, anyway -- sweet, and he treated Margaret like a queen. He was smart and funny and he had such big, beautiful eyes. They weren't together very long, though. Just long enough for them to make out a few times, for him to slide his hand under her shirt and clumsily grope her disproportionately small but fleshy breasts and tweak her nipples as he gnawed on her neck and earlobes. It had been rather nice, actually... a pleasant memory from her youth, the only one of its kind. And maybe it would have happened a few more times and even gone further... if Albert hadn't developed a crush on Lynda. He pursued her. And he got her. Like so many other guys. After all, she was the head cheerleader, the teachers loved her, and she was the object of more lust than could be found in the collected works of Harold Robbins.
When Margaret had confronted her sister about Albert Huffman, Lynda had said, "I'm sorry you feel that way, Maggie, but if you'll just look at it realistically, you'll see what really happened. I didn't steal him from you. He came to me. He preferred me, okay? After all, we only went on a few dates. It's not like we were some hot item. So get over it, Maggie. Besides... he wasn't such a great catch, you know. He was a lousy lay. You're better off starting out with somebody else."
High school had been a nightmare for Margaret, but it was the other reason she was going to Harlie: her twenty-fifth high school reunion. She was still debating whether or not to attend, because she knew who would be there: every man who had ever laughed at her in the cafeteria or ignored her at a dance, and every woman who had ever snubbed her in those girl-talking klatches in the locker room or laughed at her clumsiness on the field during P.E. And, of course, Albert Huffman. They would all be there, she was certain; they would be smiling and laughing as they drank punch and ate olives and carrot sticks and cocktail franks and they would probably all remind her that back then, in high school, she'd been fat, a real dog, a wallflower at dances and a clod in the gym.
There was, of course, one consolation. She was no longer fat.
There had come a time when Margaret became sick of dieting and sick of being plain. Once she'd made quite a success of herself in the advertising business, she could afford to give her entire body, from face to feet, a complete workover. And she did. Plastic surgery, liposuction, tucks here and there; her lips were injected with collagen, her eyes were improved, her chin and cheekbones were enhanced and her breasts were enlarged. She stopped dieting and bingeing and purging and instead started to exercise until she became addicted to it, like some insidious drug; she even started sunbathing for the first time in her life, and got quite a tan, which she worked hard to keep. As a result, she was able to maintain the body she never thought she'd have to go along with the face and tits that had been so expensive.
Of course... that had been some years ago. Cosmetic surgery doesn't last forever, especially if it's facial. She'd been warned of that by her doctor and had gone in for a few touch-ups -- especially for her lips, which had to be injected with more collagen about every six or seven months -- but she'd gotten tired of the pain and swelling and bandages after repairs on this facial feature and that body part. The time between touch-ups began to grow longer and longer, until she didn't go in at all, abandoning the idea of manufactured good looks in favor of continuing her exercises and healthy eating, and just trying to feel good about herself without any help.
Over time, however, all the work her surgeon had performed began to fade from her face and body like an old memory. Her face developed deep wrinkles that were much too visible for her age, like cuts that had been made in her skin with a dull razor. Bags of puffy flesh the color of old cigarette ashes developed beneath her eyes, and her lips began to look rather... deflated.
And now, at the age of 42, it took nothing more than a fleeting glimpse into a mirror to make her realize that her brief period of beauty was over, gone, just like her youth. Those wrinkles on her face had grown deeper and had begun to sag, along with everything else that had been worked on. She'd realized years ago that age was treating her much more harshly than it would have had she not gone through all that cosmetic surgery.
But at least I'm still thin, she thought every time she saw her reflection. And she was still thin, which was the only reason she was thinking about attending that high school reunion. They would all be losing their hair and thickening around the middle (if they weren't complete tubs already), and they would remember Margaret as being fat; she, on the other hand, would be thin. She liked the thought of that. There was a certain justice to it. She would, of course, have to control her anger and bitterness toward them -- it had never faded over the years, not even a little bit -- but she figured the worse they looked, the easier that would be. Looking at their neglected bodies of stretched, cottage cheese flesh, while hers was slender, firm and still rather shapely, would be punishment enough for them.
Margaret punched her cigarette into the ashtray, then, tired of hearing about the problems of the caller in Boulder City, Nevada, she began to wander up and down the AM dial in search of another talk show that was more interesting and less provocative. When she found nothing, she slipped a CD into the player and listened to some jazz as her tires hummed over the surface of the Interstate, taking her toward the dark and sparkling sky that met with the desert floor far off in the distance...
Copyright © 1996 by Ray Garton