Where the fire touched her, Marcy’s skin is smooth as glass and bone-white. That wouldn’t be a problem if the fire hadn’t licked across the entire right side of her body, head to toe. If it were only, say, her cheek, her neck, her upper arm, then she might be the envy of the other women in the locker room. But the fire, he was greedy. He wanted to hold as much of her as he could. Her right ear is a small, porcelain lump. Her lips are full and red on the left, flat and pale — indistinguishable from her cheek or the skin under her nose — on the right. Her right breast is a good deal smaller than her left. There is only the suggestion of a nipple.
Mary was naked when the fire touched her, just as she is naked now, in the locker room with the women. She remembers laying very still in the middle of the night as the flames wrapped her. She watched the gauzy fibers of the bed canopy ignite, the flame racing up each strand, making a cobweb of light above her head. The eyes of her teddy bear going liquid, dripping into the fur of its chest, splattering across its toes. The glowing nails in the hardwood floor. She remembers this every night. There’s no sheet or blanket when she sleeps now. She’s always warm. Even when her teeth chatter in the middle of January, she dreams she’s warm.
It’s a different story in the daylight. At the height of summer, like today, she wears wool suits. Thick jackets over silk blouses. Heavy skirts hanging from her hips like funeral curtains. They brush against her shins when she walks.
The locker room is icy cold. The towel puddled at her feet, Marcy aches. Her right side throbs. It is a phantom feeling, she knows. Normally, she would keep the towel wrapped around her until the last second. But today, with the eyes of the women finally upon her, she stands there, lets the cold grip her, lock her joints and close her eyes. When she can take no more, she hurries to put on her bra, her panties, to slip into the white silk blouse and pull on her thick nylons. The women watching mistake her jerky, exaggerated movements for panic, the thrashing of a victim, when it is actually closer to ecstasy. Desire, not fear, motivates her. The ache is delicious. It makes her want him more.
The women’s eyes are all different colors: pity, ridicule, horror, even a few shades of envy, mostly from heavyset or much older women. They seem to admire, to aspire to what they take as Marcy’s lack of fuck-giving. Marcy looks these women in the eye with a cold, dead stare. She feels no kinship with them. They are unloved and they think she is, too. Take, for example, the older woman standing at the sink, smiling at Marcy in the wide mirror. Her name is Shirley. A former acquaintance of Marcy’s mother, Marla, Shirley is in her sixties. She wasn’t beautiful when she was young, but she was happy. Married a good man, a handsome and prosperous man, Sheldon, who had a thing for a woman with a big ass, a category in which Shirley excelled. At 21 she had her first, Michael. Her second, Mary, came two years later. Then Teresa. Then Jim and John, the twins. Then Patty. And finally the baby, Terrence. Shirley loves her family. Truly and deeply. Her family, on the other hand, tolerates her. Most of her children are polite, call once a month, visit on alternating holidays. Sheldon kept his affairs low-key and short-term, always came home afterward with a present, flowers or candy. When he died, Shirley thanked her stars that Terrence had moved home after college. Five years on, she is thankful for the distraction his failures provide. Marcy was one such distraction, an attempt to get Terrence back on track. Shirley ostensibly proposed the match to Marla because neither child had many prospects. Marcy has her ruined body; Terrence, a troubled mind. The truth is that the mother in Shirley was warring with the widower in Shirley, the one wanting the best for her son, the other fearing loneliness. She knew it wouldn’t work out. At night, while Marcy dreams of fire, Shirley will admit to herself that she hoped it wouldn’t.
Marla had agreed to the set-up with Terrence, had advocated, petitioned, and finally demanded Marcy’s cooperation, for reasons similar to Shirley’s. She had given up the idea of grandchildren the moment she had seen Marcy in the Burn Unit bed. She had not yet given up the idea of a new man, though, and that would require a Marcy-less, or at least less Marcy-ful, life. Especially the kind of relationship she would envision while falling asleep at night—the slapping, the tickling, the foul-language and all the rest of what she had never had with Marcy’s father. Marla needed Marcy to find someone other than her to spend time with.
At the bar that night, Terrence had stared at Marcy without flinching. He wanted to hear every detail of the fire. “Tell me all about it,” he said and drained his beer, ordered two more.
“My father started it,” Marcy said, holding her almost full beer as the waitress set another in front of her. “He was drunk and fell asleep in his recliner smoking a cigarette.” She had stared into the dark mouth of the bottle, saw the flash and glimmer of the bar lights through the glass and felt a thrill that let her add, “He was melted to it when everything was over. The recliner. They had to bury pieces of it with him.”
“That’s fucking cool,” Terrence said, then, “Can I take your picture?” His phone was in his hand. “That way, you’ll pop up when you call, you know?” Marcy nodded and dropped her head low. “No, no, no, can you, here,” he gripped her hand and moved it, “hold your hair back like that, turn your head so I can see, you know, the burn. And your eye.” She smiled and did as he asked. “So. Fucking. Cool.” He took the picture.
“Do you want to come back to my place and see what the fire did to the rest of me for yourself?” She had never said anything like it before. She felt dirty and alive and confused and hopeful as the words spilled out.
“Fuck no.” Terrence stood and threw a wad of bills on the bar. He was laughing as he left. Twenty minutes later, as Marcy hailed a cab, her phone dinged—she was one of the recipients of a group text message from Terrence. The attachment was her picture. The responses kept her up the rest of the night. Shirley hadn’t been invited to Bridge since.
Marcy’s favorite wool suit, a chocolate brown number, hangs from the open locker door. There is a small rolling suitcase wedged into the bottom of the locker. Its color almost perfectly matches Marcy’s suit. She has one bag for each suit: brown, pink, blue, white, gray. Her shoes are similarly matched—three-inch heels in complementary shades of those same colors.
Marcy’s wigs, however, are all the same color. The smooth jet black of wet onyx. There are three of them and they all have the same style: shoulder length, bangs cut at a severe angle so the hair swoops across the right side of her face, hiding her milky eye and part of her cheek. The wigs all look the same, but this one, the one she is donning now, in the locker room, is different. It’s the one the celebrant tore from her head last night. She knows that the eyes of the women in the locker room have finally been turned toward her because of him. Because of what he did. What they had done. What she did for him.
After the Terrence Affair, as Marla calls it, the capital letters audible, she proposed a new plan. “Everyone is doing it, sweetie,” she said as she loaded up OkCupid and Match.Com and eHarmony and a number of other online dating sites. “Even me. I have a date with a nice man next Tuesday. For lunch.” Marla didn’t mention the man had already offered to tie her up. “It’s so easy.” And so they had built a profile for Marcy. When it came time to upload a picture, which the sites all stressed must be recent, Marla and Marcy argued over the definition for quite a while. Marla eventually pulled up several online dictionaries and, after pointing out that 5 years, which is how old the pre-fire picture Marla wanted Marcy to post was, counted as “a time not long past,” Marcy agreed. She was uneasy, though, looking at her face unkissed by the fire smiling out at her. It gave her chills, icy cold fingers drifting down her spine, coming to rest like the absence of a lover’s hands on her hips.
The first online date she had ended abruptly when Stu, who had been so funny and kind and polite in his emails, stopped in the vestibule of the restaurant at which they had agreed to meet, eyes bulging, face white at the sight of her. He never even made it past the inner door, simply backed out into the night and was gone. The next week was Malcolm, a very nice man who blanched when he saw her but was too polite to bolt straightaway, instead buying her two drinks in awkward silence before thanking her for her time, touching her shoulder and saying “God bless,” on his way to the door, his eyes filled with sympathetic tears.
Marla relented, then, on demanding a pre-fire picture. Instead, on the advice of a friend involved in community theater, Marla called Derek Jeffries. Mr. Jeffries was the go-to photographer for the actors and actresses of the northwest suburbs, known for working magic with light, shadows, and just a touch of makeup. He didn’t Photoshop his pictures, he was gifted at capturing his subjects’ absolute best self. And, much to Marcy’s relief, he didn’t work digitally. There would be negatives that she would insist on keeping and that would be that.
As she thinks about that first sitting three months ago, Marcy sits on the bench in the locker room, runs her hands up the length of her burned leg, tracing the seam at the back of her stocking. Sweat starts to bead at the wig’s hairline. She can feel the women trying to look away but they can’t.
Balding, overweight, with the strawberry-skin nose of an alcoholic and a beatific smile, Mr. Jeffries had arrived on the appointed afternoon. Marcy barely noticed him, so focused was she on the task at hand, presenting her absolute best self to the camera. Marla, on the other hand, the Tuesday lunch date having not panned out, seemed very interested in Mr. Jeffries, hovering around him as he set up his lights and reflectors.
“Should I put some lipstick or anything on her? Maybe some concealer, give her a deeper skin tone?”
Mr. Jeffries chuckled. “Maybe a little eye makeup. Eyeliner, a smoky shadow, but nothing too heavy.” Marla practically ran from the room to get her cosmetics bag. “And only the kid’s good eye.” He bent low to catch Marcy’s gaze. “That okay with you? I like the way the wig swoops, so we’ll leave it at that.” He reached out and touched her bangs, took a look underneath. “I’ve got plenty to work with here, huh?” He held out a surprisingly delicate hand. Marcy gripped it with her right, the ring and pinky fingers fused together. Mr. Jeffries didn’t flinch or grimace. He shook her hand firmly. Warmly.
After bringing the makeup, Marla stayed in the room during that first session. When the courier arrived two days later with contact sheets of the shots that had been taken, she had opinions about each and every one. In the end, they circled two pictures with a grease pencil, one of Marla’s choosing, one of Marcy’s, and Marla dropped the sheet at Mr. Jeffries office.
Three days later, Mr. Jeffries knocked on Marla’s door. Marcy was in the kitchen, as she was most Saturday afternoons, drinking strong, hot coffee. “Sorry, Mrs. Stapleton, but I just didn’t like any of those pictures,” he said as he stepped inside, carrying his equipment. “The one Marcy chose was close, but I think we can do better.” Marcy came out of the kitchen, the mug steaming in her hand. “Isn’t that right, kid?”
He came back for three more sessions after that. On the fifth, he asked Marla to leave him and Marcy alone for a while. “I think she gets nervous with you here. Like she wants to please you, you know? It’s hard to be yourself when your mom is watching. And we want her to be herself.”
“My absolute best self,” Marcy added.
Marla had reluctantly agreed. When the front door shut behind her, Mr. Jeffries turned to Marcy and said, “I thought we’d never, ever get rid of her, right?” He laughed so Marcy did, too. “Now, relax.” He picked up his camera, turned the lights on. The heat of them bounced off the reflectors. Marcy reflexively raised her burned hand toward the nearest one, her eyes closing slightly. The shutter clicked, again and again. “There you go, perfect.” She rolled her head to put the unburned cheek toward the heat. “Beautiful. That’s it. Just let it go.” Click. Click. Click. Marcy’s good eye heavy with something like pleasure, she looked into the lens. Click. Click. Click. Click. “Jesus, kid, that’s what we’ve been looking for.” Click. Click. Click. His good hand strayed to the neck of her blouse, the finger tracing the edge. Click. Click. Click. Her hand, the burned one played over the reflector, knocking it off balance, sending it toppling. “Whoah, shit!”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Jeffries,” Marcy said, her arms snapping back to her sides, her head lowered into her chest.
“Derek, kiddo. Call me Derek. And it’s no big deal. You were in the zone.” He picked up the reflector, reset it. “We both were.” Hands on his hips, he said, “How about we take a little break?” Marcy nodded. “Any of that coffee left?”
Marcy stood and walked toward the kitchen, gave him a little hitch of the head so he’d follow. She motioned with her burned hand toward one of the seats at the kitchen table and he sat. She took a mug from the cupboard, set it next to hers on the table, and filled both.
He sipped it and recoiled. “Damn, that’s hot. Be careful, you don’t want to get burned.”
Marcy cocked her good eyebrow at him and took a mouthful from her mug, opened her mouth wide after swallowing.
Derek laughed. “Well goddamn, I guess you don’t have anything to fear, do you? Been there, done that, as the kids say.” He sipped again. “My fifth grade teacher, Miss Baste, she was in a motorcycle accident just after school started. Wasn’t wearing a helmet. Sleeveless dress. The bike slid forty or so feet on top of her. Her boyfriend was killed instantly but she lived. She came back in the spring. Before the accident, all the boys loved her. Young. Slim. Perfect tan skin. Tall. So tall. Always wore a dress and heels. Long, long legs.” A bigger sip, a little pant to cool his tongue. “She lost her left arm just below the elbow, right leg at the knee. Lots of scaring. The other boys, they were afraid of her. Made fun something awful.” Another sip. “Not me. I liked her even more. She was so… Brave. At the end of the year, we did a ‘Who Do You Admire” paper. I wrote mine on her. She was flattered. After class, she asked me to stay. She said thank you, that my paper really made her feel better. I asked for a favor.” He drained the mug, sat quiet for a while. “I asked if she could touch her prosthetic leg.” He looked Marcy in the eyes, moving her bangs so he could see both of them. “She smiled and said it wasn’t appropriate.”
Derek stood up, shook the camera on its strap around his neck. “Well, I should go, get started on these. I think we’ve finally got the real you here, Marcy. And I know it’s going to beautiful, okay?” He reached out and cupped her chin. After a second, he let go, tapped the top of her nose with his finger, and then left.
But that kindness, that connection, it isn’t what has pulled all the eyes in the locker room to her. Like moths, these eyes are only drawn by the light. No, Marcy knows, as she slips her scarred foot into her shoe, fastens the tiny buckle at her ankle—these women are looking because she has become holy, a shining beacon, a luminary.
Marcy arrived at her mother’s house early yesterday, intending to spend the day baking, chatting, or just reading in the heat and light of the sun porch. She let herself in and went into the kitchen, began brewing coffee, slicing the coffee cake she had bought. She put her mother’s newspaper on the kitchen table in front of her seat. A few minutes later, Marla stepped into the kitchen. Her hair was plastered to her cheeks, lipstick smeared. She was wearing nothing under her thin robe. “ Oh, Jesus! Marcy…”
A gruff voice called from upstairs, “Marla, baby, bring some crackers, too! You’re wearing me out!”
Marcy asked if she was interrupting something.
“Well… The date last night went well.”
Marcy began scooping the coffee cake slices back into the box.
“Now don’t, Marcy. Hugo is a nice man. And he likes me.” Marcy glared at the thin red welts across her mother’s thighs. Marla noticed her looking and stopped, trying to cover the marks with the edge of her short robe. “It’s not what you think, baby. I—”
Marcy left the newspaper for her mother but took the coffee cake with her.
“I’ll call you later. We can have dinner, maybe,” Marla said as Marcy slipped out the front door.
Marcy sat on the front stairs, set the box of coffee cake next to her, opened it, and took a slice. The sun was just rising above the trees on the other side of the street and Marcy lifted her face toward it, eyes closed as she chewed. She sat like that for a long time, savoring the slice and the sun. Cars went by sporadically in either direction and Marcy listened to the tiny explosions of their engines. Eventually, a car pulled up and stopped. Marcy only barely registered it.
“Marcy?” She fluttered her eyes open and saw Derek standing in front of her. “You okay, kiddo?” She nodded. “Your mom home? I brought the new shots and I think we’re in business.” He shook the large manilla envelope in his hand.
Marcy explained that Marla was busy.
“Oh, well, it’s your opinion I care about, anyway. Is that coffee cake? Mind if I have a slice, I’m starving.” He took the slice she offered him and stuffed it all in his mouth, chewed powerfully, his mouth mostly closed. “Mmmm, good,” he said and swallowed loudly. “But hardly a full breakfast. How about we grab something at Omega and look over the pictures?”
At the diner, Derek pulled her chair out for her, squeezed her shoulder as she sat down. They each ordered huge breakfasts. Marcy asked for hot sauce when the waitress brought her eggs.
“Mind if I try some of that,” Derek asked when Marcy capped the bottle. She handed it to him and he shook a tiny puddle onto the edge of his plate. He dipped the tines of his fork before forking up a chunk of scrambled egg. He coughed and spluttered as the heat his the back of his throat. Marcy stuffed a soaking wad of egg into her mouth and smiled as she chewed. “God damn, kid. You’re something else.”
Derek told her about the three wives he still paid, the three kids that never called, about the drinking and the carousing and all the other failures. Marcy told him about the fire, things she hadn’t even told Terrence. What the canopy looked like, about teddy’s eyes, that she was naked that night and why, about how her boyfriend fell off the trellis when her bedroom window exploded outward, and how he had only visited her once in the hospital.
Once their breakfast plates had been cleared, they headed to a place Derek knew, a bar from his drinking days, so they could keep talking. Two hours and six beers in, Marcy’s cell started buzzing, Marla calling to apologize, to offer to make beef barley and spaetzle, watch a movie or play cards after dinner. Marcy ignored the first three calls then turned the phone off.
When they got hungry again, they walked—they were too drunk to drive—to an Italian restaurant that Marcy had always wanted to try. Derek slipped the hostess a twenty to get a table right in the center of the room. Marcy could feel eyes on her. Then she realized the eyes were on them. She wasn’t alone. The other diners were as curious about Derek as they were about her. And she liked that. After ordering dinner, Derek finally opened the manilla envelope. Inside was a single 8 x 10. The picture was beautiful. Marcy could hardly breathe. She couldn’t believe it was her she was seeing but, at the same time, she knew it was. Her eye was mysterious behind it’s milky shroud. Her cheek and neck glowed, lit from inside. Her smile was dangerous and gorgeous and powerful and hot.
“I’m beautiful,” she whispered.
“You are, kid. So beautiful.”
“No, all I did was really look at you. Really see you.”
“Thank you.” She leaned forward and with her mangled hand grasped his. “You are a wonderful man.”
Derek leaned in close, his breath warm, thick, dark as smoke, and whispered, “I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you let me rub it on your burns.”
Marcy panicked inside but you wouldn’t be able to tell, a gift from the fire, her reactions hidden in the ruined flesh of her face. She liked Derek. She could feel a brokenness in him to rival hers. He was damaged, the smoldering ruin of a man, hollowed out, gutted, leaning precariously over his foundations. This was a cry for help, the groan and crack of timbers settling. He was reaching out, stripped to his frame, trying to find a little peace, some relief. She could do this for him. For him, she could do this. And for her, she was sure, he would do something.
When she led him out the door to the curb and into the back of a taxi, she had no intention of taking the money. When he groped her stunted breast and ran his tongue over her seared cheek, mumbling profanities, pawing himself, the money was the furthest thing from her mind. When he laid her on her bed and tore at her suit, her blouse and stockings, even her wig, laying her bare, when his penis touched her thigh, her neck, the curve of her elbow, she forgot completely that he had ever offered her the hundred dollars. As Derek increased the speed of his rubbing, she felt the warmth of friction and her mind filled with flame, flickered orange and yellow and the brightest white. When Derek finished, leaving a sticky mess across her stomach, and began to softly weep, to mutter over and over, “I’m sorry,” while gathering his clothes, digging in his pocket, Marcy stretched, feeling the cold and wet on her skin, and decided she would take the money Derek was now shaking at her, more than a hundred, a roll of bills clipped with a shiny silver dollar sign. She reached through the clearing smoke in her brain and took it, smiled at Derek as he backed out of the bedroom, down the hall, and out of sight through the front door. There wasn’t a moment of sadness for what had happened. Instead, Marcy felt like a high priestess. The wad in her hand was simply a tithe, the wad on her stomach a sacrament, her body the earthly vessel of something greater. The manilla folder with the beautiful picture of her was on the bedside table and Marcy knew what she had to do. Right now, the picture was in the rolling bag. She would have it scanned, upload it to her profile. Fully dressed now, sitting on the locker room bench, the women watched her stroke the top of the bag. They thought her unloved but Marcy was imagining the men that would love her. Franklin, who wants nothing more than to run his tongue from the tip of the toes of her right foot to the hairless crown of her head and then back down, across the sole of her foot, to her toes again, taking close to an hour to make the entire trip across the clean-scorched skin. Or Philip who wants to smell the inside of her wig, breathing in the smell of ash and flame. Perhaps, Marcy thinks, even one of these women here looking at her will end up in her bed, self-immolating with her as the fuel. Why not? She must cast her net wide. Because when she has done enough for others, one of them will be worthy of what else is in the bag. On that night, instead of money, Marcy will ask the celebrant to douse her in lighter fluid, strike one of the heavy wooden matches, and finally send her, ecstatic, to heaven.
After 15 years in the Chicago comedy scene as a performer, writer, and director, Eric Rampson has turned his attention back to his first love, fiction. His stories have been published in the Logan Square Literary Review and Trembles. He is also editor-in-chief of Lonely Robot Comics through which he publishes several titles. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Fiction from The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He lives in Chicago with his wife and son.