Raisin Bran. It had fruit in it, fibre which Laura had always been told was good for you, but it looked like clumps of fibreglass in the bowl on the packaging.
Cap’n Crunch. Grinning loon with a pirate hat, a pile of pebbles in colours that had no place in the food chain. When she read the sugar content on the back, she imagined Ray’s kids, already burdened with an excess of energy and injecting them with nitroglycerine. She loved her nephews but her brother’s laid back soft kindly way was not always the most appropriate method of child raising.
Such thoughts would surface like submarines throughout the calm oceans of her day, all the more frequent since she had come home. She couldn’t read about cyber bullying, remembering how it used to have the personal touch, but still seeing that expression of disbelief, the reminder that the world was arbitrary and cruel to the sweetest people.
Laura decided that the boys would have eggs for breakfast. Her and Ray had been raised on them and he’d turned out okay. She had taken the long way there, but then she had been part of what she considered to be the last acceptable group to be prejudiced against. Even more so than white men.
There will be no Rosa Parks for the kids with the lopsided grins. No one has a dream that ugly kids will be accepted, we laugh at ugly adults and we laugh at their children. Ugly lives don’t matter, there is no colour of the homo rainbow for the facially disadvantaged. Fat people have activists in their corner but the ugly, Laura would surmise, remained the most perfect of targets. There are delusions of nobility in the poorest, but ugly people would get segregated if anyone cared enough to acknowledge their existence.
Laura and Ray’s parents were lovely people, charitable and unassuming, but whereas Ray had inherited his mother’s high cheekbones and bright blue eyes, making him if not movie star handsome then personable and earnest enough that his gregarious personality come through, which he had picked up from his dad, then Laura.
Oh Laura, her father’s guilty preacher facial structure and her mother’s careful, fragile intellect were red flags to the seed bulls of high school. Hair that had a kink in it, no matter what she did, an overbite that made her mournful and a shovel jaw that verged on acromegaly.
The names. The jokes. Death by a thousand cuts, until she collapsed into a shuddering heap at the dinner table. The day that Zeke Costner had asked her out to prom without being able to follow through on the joke before falling apart with laughter. Sending her away to her aunt in Dallas, where she met a boy that she thought she could trust. Her instincts so eroded by mistrust that she agreed to go driving with him. excited that a boy, a strange, hot boy would want to take her places.
Laura could not tell a predator because she had believed, for so long, that no one liked her, that when someone did, it was a miracle, an article of faith that was not to be questioned. Her aunt did what she could without telling her sister but Laura was in love. He was driving her home, and she was sat on the folded up musty denim skirt, sore from where he had wedged himself inside her when he failed to see the semi up ahead.
Starting from nothing, reborn in a womb of smoke, blood and steel bent into shapes that steel should not have been capable of. Three months in a coma. Sat with the Greek plastic surgeon, descended from market traders in Athens and a qualified surgeon, telling her that they would give her old face back to her. She could only speak in vowels, so she wrote down in hastily scrawled block capitals.
WHAT IF I DON’T WANT THAT?
He lowered his oversized spectacles down the bridge of his nose and smiled at her.
‘I’m sorry, but now you have intrigued me. What do you want?’
She wrote down a word, lifted the pad and turned it to him.
Dr Katsoulas had photographs of her blown up and framed in his clinic, all his expertise and imagination brought to bear. Most plastic surgery makes the recipient look like a startled reptile but with Laura, it had not been about preservation but reconstruction, art, the creative borne of the destructive, which was why when she came back to Austin, it was an older, wiser and infinitely more beautiful woman than before. She had taken lovers, men and women, had bad sex as well as good and sometimes great, college had been wonderful for her and when her brother’s life had fallen apart, she had been able to take a sabbatical from the magazine to come and help out whilst Ray got his shit together.
So, she had decided on eggs. Looking up, she saw a stocky man in a sportcoat and jeans, shirt open at the throat and looking at her, equal parts bemused and hungry.
Zeke Costner pushed a trolley at the end of the aisle, his eyes dark with novel hunger and completely failing to recognise her. His hair was still thick, a helmet of moussed blonde hair, the armour of a soldier in the army of My Life Peaked In High School, Asshole Division. He had green eyes, chips of jade in a bowl of cream, the kind of bone structure that you hoped your imaginary kids would inherit.
Ray said that he owned a Mercedes dealership, divorced twice and no kids. The years had blunted the edge of his beauty. She had seen photographs of ancient temples, smoothed over and blunted by the desert, burning air and the microabrasive winds. Much the same thing with him but with beer, corn syrup and time. His eyes narrowed, and she imagined the file clerks in his memory rapidly hunting through the drawers for her identity. Wondering if she would get to tell him who she was, how that might go.
Then the gun went off and the gruff voice told everyone to get on the fucking floor.
Laura looked around, saw the twitching dull eyes of the kid with the sawn off shotgun as she watched Zeke shake his head and wave to her, hissing for her to get down.
‘Would you have said that if I weren’t pretty?’ she said.
His eyes grew wide as he ducked down, flapping at her to get down or she was going to get killed. He had his cell in his hand that gestured to her, a sleek black model that, to the sensory array of someone who had spent thirty six hours out of their mind on methamphetamine might have been seen as a threatening gesture. Without a pause between perception and action, Zeke was nearly cut in half by the blast. His eyes were wide, sightless as he stared up at the ceiling and the robber ran without looking back.
Laura’s ears were ringing and she stared at Zeke as he laid there, shirt saturated and ragged, and she wondered what she might have seen in his eyes if she had the courage to look at herself in the drying, fading mirror of his eyes.
Wondering, if she was still ugly after all.