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By Christine Woodward
Hyperion Copyright © 2013 Christine Woodward
All rights reserved.
I WAS WALKING TO WORK, MINDING MY OWN BUSINESS, WHEN I saw James lurking in the shadows.
Of course at the time I didn't know it was James. I thought it was just some tall, creepy guy who didn't know better than to scare young girls after dark. Either that or he really did plan on leaping out and grabbing me. Of course that could be a lot more dangerous for him than me. Whatever the case, the main thing I felt when I saw him leaning in the doorway of Maybelline's Collectibles was irritated. He didn't smoke, or look at the ratty-ass beaded purses Maybelline had hung in the window, or do much of anything except watch me walk down the street. A tiny little part of me kind of enjoyed being watched this way. It's a sad state of affairs when an eighteen-year-old girl never gets to have her legs admired.
But still. Couldn't he be polite and cross the street to prove he wasn't some kind of rapist? Hadn't his mama taught him this little piece of late night manners? One of the reasons I liked my job at the Sunshine Bakery was that I hardly ever saw a soul on my way to work. Jackson, Mississippi, isn't exactly New York City—people pretty much tuck themselves into bed by midnight. So in the dusky wee hours, I felt pretty safe without my leather. Every night I left my government-subsidized apartment wearing shorts and a T-shirt. It had been a long, hot summer, and walking to work was the only time I ever felt even the barest prickle of a breeze on my skin.
Now for the first time since I started this job three months ago, I had to think on how to avoid walking near someone with my skin exposed. The closer I got to the stairs that led down to the bakery kitchen, the clearer it got that El Creepo had no plans to move out of my way. That's what I decided to call him, El Creepo, even though by now I'd got close enough to see that he looked like a pretty sexy guy. I guessed he was only a few years older than me, with long, dark hair. It looked like he hadn't shaved in a couple days. It was too dark out to tell for sure, but I had this feeling he had blue eyes—piercing blue. Not only that, he wore this long, black leather coat.
Now, why in the world would anyone except me wear leather in the middle of a Mississippi August?
But never mind that. Even if El Creepo wasn't a rapist, or a mugger, and even if he looked devilishly handsome, the entrance to the bakery stood exactly next door to Maybelline's. I couldn't risk him reaching out to touch my arm, or tripping as I passed by and trying to grab hold of me for balance. So I crossed the street myself, walked down about twenty feet on the other side, then crossed again. I had to walk a little ways in the opposite direction to get to the bakery. El Creepo had turned around now, apparently so he could keep watching me, and I stared straight back at him in a way that hopefully told him I'd just done what he should have—crossed the street, that is. It took every ounce of willpower I had not to give him the finger, because not only did his presence mean that from now on I wouldn't be risking the shorts and T-shirt even at this late hour, it also meant that I couldn't stand at the top of the stairs, looking at the knickknacks in Maybelline's window, the way I usually did before heading down to work.
I didn't have money to buy anything from Maybelline's anyhow. I never used to be the sort of person who wasted time daydreaming about what I couldn't have. That habit's one I got from Cody. So truthfully it was just as well for me to go without window-shopping. But sometimes I got awful tired, of all the things it was better to go without.
DOWNSTAIRS AT THE SUNSHINE BAKERY I PUT ON MY HAIRNET and iPod and set straight to work. This late night shift—fixing all the muffins and donuts and scones that would go on sale first thing when the store opened—was the third job I'd had since coming to Jackson from Caldecott, and the first one I really liked. If I couldn't touch people, at least I could feed them. The owner, Wendy Lee Beauchamp, kept all her recipes in a big manila folder, and all I had to do to make sure everything turned out right was follow them precisely.
Once I'd got all the baked goods into the ovens, I went into the tiny little bathroom. On the day she hired me, Wendy Lee told me I'd have to keep the bathroom clean. By this I figured she meant I had to keep it tidy, and not leave my personal effects lying around. Because, why would you want the same person who baked your pastries cleaning the bathroom? Lately, though, I'd noticed rings around the sink and toilet, and started to suspect I was meant to do the scrubbing. Deciding there was no time like the present, I fished out a dented container of Comet.
When that was done, I changed into my leather jeans and black turtleneck, then pulled on my gloves. Since it had got so hot, I'd switched from leather gloves to white cotton, the sort you'd wear to a fancy tea party. My sleeves covered my arms well enough, but since my arms were the most likely place for someone to try and touch me, I wore a leather jacket, too. As for the black, it didn't make a difference what color I wore in terms of protection, except for making me look scary enough that no one ever wanted to touch me. Same for the white streaks in my long, brown hair, the ones that showed up after what happened to Cody.
Before Wendy Lee arrived, I still had ten minutes to bring everything I'd baked to the front of the store, so I put my iPod back on, cranked up "Jesus, Take the Wheel," and mopped the little bathroom.
"ANNA MARIE. ANNA MARIE!"
By the time I heard Wendy Lee screaming my name, I guess she'd been calling me for a while, because she marched toward me with her arm outstretched, like she planned to tap me on the shoulder. I jumped aside so fast I hit the little shelf with all the paper towels and toilet paper on it. Everything came raining down on my head, and all over the floor, so you couldn't even see how nice and clean I'd got it.
As I pulled out my earbuds, I could see that the oven with all the scones was smoking like a chimney stack. "Dang," I said. Even in my agitated state, I remembered to watch my language around Wendy Lee, who considered herself a God- fearing woman. Instead of heading toward the scone oven—those were already a lost cause—I went for the muffins. They looked a teensy bit brown on top, but in a nice, crunchy, golden way.
The scones, on the other hand, were all burned up. Wendy Lee pulled them out of the oven herself. She was one of those women who got herself up all fancy—hair bleached and poofed, eyebrows plucked, nails done, makeup thick as a mask—so even one hair out of place could make her look completely disheveled. At that moment, at least three hairs had moved out of place, plus she had a little smear of black on her cheek from the charred scones.
"God damn it, Anna Marie," Wendy Lee said. Now on top of burning the scones I'd made her take the Lord's name in vain. "What the hell am I supposed to sell this morning?" She took a deep breath to calm herself down, and I could tell that I wouldn't like what she had to say next. And I was right. I stood there, listening to her rattle off a list of reasons why I was not working out at the Sunshine Bakery.
"I don't want to hurt your feelings, Anna Marie, but the way you dress is very peculiar."
"But nobody ever sees me! I work downstairs in the middle of the night."
"People see you coming out in the morning, Sugar. They wonder why the person baking their muffins is dudded up in black leather in the summertime."
She said that someone had seen me hanging out in front of Maybelline's and worried I was casing the place, which I couldn't believe. Who the hell saw me window-shopping at one o'clock in the morning? I immediately suspected El Creepo. Could be last night was the first time I saw him but not the other way around.
She went on. "Now, I don't like to point fingers. But three times since you started working here the change drawer has come up short."
"I never even go upstairs. I swear it, Wendy Lee."
Obviously that was the real reason I was getting fired. Wendy Lee thought that I was stealing from her. But she didn't want to dwell on that, probably because she couldn't prove it. When she said I never cleaned the bathroom, I ran over and opened up the door, then started putting all the paper towels and toilet paper that I'd knocked down back on the shelf. "Look," I said. "I just cleaned it this morning. Look, Wendy Lee, I mopped and everything."
I could feel my face all shiny with sweat, and my crazy white hair coming out of my hairnet. If Wendy Lee had looked mad, I might have stood a chance. But she just looked sorry for me. So I ripped off my hairnet and threw it at her feet.
"Fine," I said. "You can have your dang job." I still didn't have the heart to cuss in front of her. I also didn't have the dignity to leave before she cut me my last check, and I just stood there sweating and tapping my feet while she wrote it out for me. I didn't know Wendy Lee's age—she gussied herself up so plastic, she could've been anywhere between twenty-five and fifty. What kind of memories would Wendy Lee have? I thought that I almost would kill to ice a cake as pretty as she did.
OUT ON THE SIDEWALK THE AIR ALREADY FELT HOT AND MUGGY, and I felt powerfully down and blue. Not only had I lost a job I actually liked, I hadn't even worked there long enough to get unemployment. The measly check in my pocket would not last long. My heavy-soled boots stuck to the pavement, making a little suctiony noise as I walked. Delivery trucks rattled down the street. I stopped for a moment to collect myself in front of the Jackson Diner.
A young couple about my age sat at the table just behind the window. They were so involved in talking that they didn't notice me—the weird Goth girl with the crazy white shock of hair, all frizzy and smoke-filled from the bakery. The girl at the table was very sad and very pretty, with freckles and a face that could have belonged to a fairy from one of the old books my mama used to collect. Even though she was crying, her eyes didn't look red at all.
Maybe the boy was breaking up with her. I looked at him—they still hadn't noticed me—and saw his brow kind of crinkle up, and he had tears in his eyes, like he felt awful sorry for her but didn't know what to do. As the girl talked, she fiddled with the plastic salt and pepper shakers. All of a sudden, the boy reached out his hands to stop her fidgeting. He closed his fingers around hers, and they just sat there for a moment, staring into each other's eyes and holding hands. It seemed to calm her down, that touch. It seemed to comfort her.
There's only so much a person can bear. I stepped back, away from the window, and headed toward home.
I WALKED UP THE DARK STAIRWAY OF MY RUNDOWN, SECTION 8 apartment building. It was the only place I qualified for where I could have a whole apartment to myself. Technically I don't even think you could call it an apartment, because it was just one room if you didn't count the bathroom. I locked all four deadbolts and skinned out of my leather pants, then turned on the three rickety fans I'd bought at Goodwill and crawled between my sheets. Nothing left to do but sleep, even though I knew I'd have what I called The Dream. I had it almost every time I slept, and it never started out the same way, unless you count the fact that it always started out happy. Happy like fireworks. Happy like you can't even stand it but you don't ever want it to stop. Maybe if the damn dream didn't start out so happy, by now I'd have figured out how to wake myself up before it got too late. But I never could stand to leave the beginning. The beginning made it almost worth it.
So I very nearly welcomed it. I didn't know how it would start out exactly—what I'd be doing, who I'd see. I only knew I'd be happy until it all went wrong. Terribly, awfully wrong.
SURE ENOUGH THE DREAM STARTED OUT WITH THE HAPPIEST thing in the world: Me and Cody, the way it used to be, walking up the hill on his mama and daddy's farm. In the dream it must have been springtime, because everything around us was blooming like crazy and it didn't feel so horribly hot. Birds were chirping and I could feel a nice breeze. When I say I could feel it, it's because I wasn't decked out in head-to-toe black leather. Instead I had on a thin, flowery dress, the sort I used to wear back in my old life, when touching people didn't mean sucking out all their memories, all their abilities, all their life force. I can't say how the dress looked, but it felt just beautiful. Soft cotton fluttered against my legs. My hair blew back in the wind, and I knew there were no stupid white streaks, it was just brown. Not mousy brown, but rich and dark, like the bark on the old chestnut tree in Cody's front yard. One time in real life Cody and I stood under that tree and he told me there was nothing prettier in all the world than a brown-eyed, brown-haired girl.
Here in my dream Cody looked just like he used to, like the sweet boy-next-door of every girl's dreams, with sandy brown hair that flopped over his forehead, and freckles, and hazel eyes. He used to love to play baseball, so his arms were sinewy and muscled. At seventeen he could fix any problem in any car. He loved to drive his daddy's old tractor, and there it was right now, parked beside us on the hill. Cody climbed on and I followed him. I wrapped my arms around his waist and let my chin rest on his shoulder as he turned the key and started the motor.
We rode past the neat rows of cotton. I could hear and smell the Mississippi River, and an old loblolly pine rose up in the distance. Cody's hair wisped against my face, it smelled of straw and cottonseed and Ivory soap. I moved my hands up from his waist and pressed them against his heart. I could feel it beating beneath my fingers: thump, thump, thump, just about the most cheerful sound you could ever imagine. A crow flew overhead, so low I thought its talons might brush the tops of our heads, and I couldn't help pressing my lips against the back of Cody's neck, his skin, the spot between his hair and his collar.
That was it: all it ever took. Me touching him. It never happened in the dreams exactly the way it did in real life. But it always ended up with Cody on the ground, everything inside that used to make him him just gone.
I woke up sitting bolt upright, a scream strangled in my throat and the sheets down around my ankles, my whole body covered in sweat despite all those noisy, rattling fans.
THE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI CHANGED THE NAME OF ITS FOOD stamp program to SNAP, which is supposed to stand for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. If you ask me, the name sounds a mite too perky. I may have grown up a far cry from rich, but that didn't mean I liked admitting I needed handouts.
But admit it or not, it was time for me to head on over to SNAP. That last check from the Sunshine Bakery didn't go very far (thinking on how Wendy Lee didn't give me any severance, let alone notice, made me wish I'd used every cuss word I knew). So far I'd had no luck getting a new job. You wouldn't think touching people would be so important when it comes to menial employment, but it's damn near impossible to get through an interview when you can't shake hands. The only reason I'd gotten around it with Wendy Lee was she interviewed me while she iced a cake for the Devereaux wedding and didn't have a free hand to offer. Anyway, you can't exactly wear gloves to an interview in Mississippi summertime, and as I said before, the old skin condition excuse doesn't go over very well if you want to get into the food service industry. Or any other industry, come to think of it.
So until I could make a new plan for myself, it looked like I had a date with SNAP. Have I mentioned that back at school in Caldecott County I got straight A's starting from first grade? Even Aunt Carrie felt sure I was headed to Ole Miss on scholarship. At the age of eighteen, I should've been living in a dorm and eating school cafeteria food. Not living in Section 8 housing and applying for what were still damn well food stamps.
Excerpted from Rogue Touch by Christine Woodward. Copyright © 2013 Christine Woodward. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion.
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