Hardcover with CD
Atlanta, Georgia, 1964
EVE ANGLED the old VW toward the curb alongside the high-school yard and slipped the shift stick into park. She stared directly ahead, lost in another world, nearly oblivious to the hundred or so students on the lawn to her right.
She recited the words so firmly etched in her mind as if she had written them herself.
“The soldiers stood unmoving on the hill’s crest, leaning on battered rifles, five dark silhouettes against a white Bosnian sky, like a row of trees razed by the war. They stared down at the small village, oblivious to the sweat caked beneath their tattered army fatigues, unaware of the dirt streaking down their faces like long black claws.”
Eve stopped. To think that it had all started so innocently. Just five tired soldiers staring at a peaceful village . . .
Someone yelled, and she turned her head to look at the students through the passenger window.
Wake up, old woman . You’re here now, not there.
She was here to deliver a dozen of her rarest roses—crossbred Russian reds—but she couldn’t focus on the task. Her mind was lost in this other world, where things like roses and cars and students meant something very different than they did here.
She was once as young as these students, fifty or sixty years ago. She’d fumbled through adolescence and come out reasonably sane, though that was before she learned the true meaning of life in that surreal moment when her world stopped for an hour or so. She found her sanity then, all of it, in a time of horror and beauty.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
She pushed open her door and stepped out.
“Forgive them, for they simply do not, cannot, will not know—”
Eve’s vision froze.
Her left foot was planted on the street, her right on the Volkswagen’s floorboard. Her heart was halfway through a beat; her lungs were half-full of air. For a long moment, they stayed that way.
A girl stood alone on the lawn, staring at the other students as if unsure what to do with herself. The school, with all of its activity, faded from Eve’s view.
The girl was all she could see. A girl she knew.
But it wasn’t possible! Not here!
Eve’s heart crashed, and the familiar rhythm of life resumed. She was mistaken. No matter how the girl resembled . . .
The girl still stood on the grass, unmoving. The other students swarmed by, but this one lost child, an outcast, shut off from the busy world around her, was immobilized by her own insignificance.
A knot of empathy rose in Eve’s throat.
She’d come to deliver flowers, but she decided then that she would deliver something more.
So very, very much more.
MARCI STOOD on numb legs, unable to move. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the strength to walk across the schoolyard and up those wide, sweeping steps that led into the gaping double doors. It was that she didn’t want to walk past the other students.
But school was out, and she had to get to her locker, simple as that. Which meant she had to pass by them.
She’d long ago stopped thinking of them by name. It wasn’t Kevin, the quarterback who led his fans around campus, or Cheryl, his girlfriend, who had an annoying habit of popping her gum, or Tom, who had that loud motorcycle they called an Indian. It was just them.
There were twenty-nine kids in the eleventh grade. Twenty-eight of them were going to Kevin’s fall party tonight. One was not. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know which one.
The one with the long, stringy brown hair. The one who had fat fingers and stubby nails. The one who tried to cover her zits with makeup but failed miserably. The one who wore Salvation Army rejects because she couldn’t afford real clothes from Rich’s department stores.
Marci stood still, knowing that even now, standing alone on the front lawn, she stuck out like a wart. It was Friday. School was out. She couldn’t just stand here forever.
Marci lowered her eyes to the grass and forced herself forward. Her red plaid kick-pleat skirt hung around her knees. She’d saved up for three months and bought it a week ago, but she hadn’t worked up the courage to wear it until today. A stupid, stupid, stupid thing to do. What was she thinking? She hated herself for feeling like she had to wear it to fit in.
Three girls were walking by, looking at her.
“Nice skirt,” one of them said.
Marci’s face flushed. She should have gone home.
“Stunning,” the second said.
“You wearing that dress tonight?”
Marci’s vision clouded with embarrassment. All of them knew she hadn’t been invited.
“Never too late to impress the boys,” the third said, winking.
“Please, she isn’t even going. And if she showed up in that, we’d have to lock her in the bathroom to keep the boys from throwing up.” The girl skipped ahead. “Come on! Bobby’s waiting.”
Marci’s world spun. Funny how it never got easier. She walked forward. The steps had emptied. She climbed them a step at a time, hating every swish of her skirt.
The building had emptied too. She turned down the long hall and walked quickly, scuffed shoes clicking on the concrete floor. She reached her locker. Pulled it open and stared in.
Her diary sat on her upper shelf. She stared at it dumbly. The words she’d written just a week ago ran through her mind. I’m pretty sure I have enough money for at least a new skirt, the one in the window at Lerners. Maybe a new blouse too! I’m going to do it! I’m going down to pick out a skirt that all the others would wish they had bought. Then I’m going to wear it to school.
Marci reached for the diary, pulled it out. Maybe she should take the book home and burn it.
Someone was in the hall to her left. A shadow in the corner of Marci’s eye. She turned her head.
A woman with gray hair, wearing a yellow-flowered dress, stood alone in the hall twenty yards away, looking directly at her. A vase of roses sat on a cabinet next to the woman.
Normally Marci would have looked away, but for some reason she couldn’t. She just looked back into the woman’s long, haunting stare.
They seemed to be trapped in each other’s eyes. The air suddenly felt too thick to breathe. Still the woman wouldn’t break off the stare. Marci didn’t know what to do.
The woman was suddenly walking down the hall. Straight for her. Eyes locked.
A small wave of dread swept through Marci’s chest. The woman stopped five feet away. There was something about the woman’s eyes. Pity. Maybe horror. But that wasn’t it. There was more.
Something surreal. Something impossible.
“What’s your name, child?”
The woman’s voice was soft and low with a foreign accent.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” the woman said. “You may call me Eve. What is your name?”
“Hello, Marci.” The woman blinked. “You hate yourself because you don’t think you’re beautiful, is that it?”
At first the question sounded distant. How did the old woman know that? Was it so obvious? Then again, people always assumed that ugly people hated themselves. Though for Marci, it was true.
“Do you believe everything can change in the space of one breath, Marci?” the woman asked.
Marci stood frozen.
The woman slipped a card from her purse. “You think physical beauty is important? Fine. I’ll work in your world, for your sake. Come to my flower shop tomorrow, and I will make you beautiful.”
Marci’s thoughts collided. Now that she thought about it, the woman was saying that she really was ugly. Of course she was ugly; everyone knew that, but not so ugly a stranger would walk up to her and make a point of it.
The woman stepped forward and slid the card under the diary’s cover with a touch as soft as her voice. “More beautiful than you can possibly imagine,” she said. Eve lifted her hand, touched Marci’s chin. “And I’m not speaking of inner beauty, child. I can change the way you look with a power beyond your comprehension.”
Then the woman turned and walked down the hall. She stepped through the doors to the street and was gone.
Marci stood by her open locker, diary in arm, staring after the woman. The first hints of real anger prompted a faint tremor in her fingers. The anger swelled to rage. How could a total stranger dare make such a cruel insult?
How could anyone walk up to her and tell her that she really was ugly and needed to be changed? And how could the witch taunt her with such an absurd promise? Let’s dress you up and pretend you’re beautiful and parade you around the block for all the boys to laugh at.
The tremble ran to Marci’s heels. She clenched her hand, and for the first time that day, a tear slipped from her eye.I hate you . I hate you, I hate you, I hate you! I will cut my wrists before I come to your pathetic little flower shop!