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Finding Beauty

by Branigan Grace

The sign for the Forever Young Treatment Center flashed neon-pink in the mirror above the women’s vinyl chairs. Gideon’s feet kicked in boredom, but he halted them before Nona’s wintry eyes could catch his own. She never frowned, but would raise her eyebrows and chin in disapproval of his restlessness. He always felt the chill in that look.

Gideon sat in obedient silence with his favorite book watching Mother and Nona receive the final injections. He had learned long ago not to react to the sight of the needles repeatedly puncturing their flesh.

“All done. You look lovely!” The technician swabbed a cotton ball over the women’s hands, filling the air with an antiseptic odor. Mother and Nona inspected their hands, admiring the smooth whiteness.

“Lovely work, as usual, Stella,” Mother said, opening her purse.”My treat today,” she told Nona.

“Thank you, darling,” Nona cooed, still examining her newly tightened skin. She gave a satisfied sigh, pushing back her sleek blonde hair from the taut flesh of her face.

“Can we go home now, please?” Gideon asked. “I’m hungry.”

Nona and Mother both turned to look at Gideon. Sometimes he got them mixed up, with their silver-blonde hair, wide blue eyes,and shiny red mouths that rarely smiled or turned down, but lay as if painted on in faint upward curves, never showing what was inside. Yet Gideon always knew their feelings. He was very good at sensing annoyance, anger, and whenever he was in the way. Gideon could see all of these things right now from Mother’s narrowed eyes and Nona’s tightened lips.

Nona was Mother’s mother, though Gideon knew better than to ever mention it. Nona liked to pretend she and his mother were sisters; she always had, ever since Gideon could remember. He had no memories of his father; the women rarely spoke of him, except with passing disdain. Gideon’s only friends were his books, which he devoured night after night in his small room, his only sanctuary.

The women stood and walked out into the street, their high heels making angry clicks on the pavement. Gideon followed, almost running to keep up with them, clutching his precious Narnia book.

“Shall we go to Burdoff’s next? They’ve just gotten the latest shoes in from that French designer we read about,” Nona said to Mother.

Gideon knew that Nona was angry that he had come with them today. His nanny had gone to visit her sick aunt. Mother phoned around desperately before finally towing him along, hissing a stern warning not to be a pest while they were out.

Mother sighed. “I suppose we should look for some lunch soon.”

“What about Chez Jean’s? Their salads are excellent,” Nona said.

“That sounds wonderful,” Mother said, her face tightening to show pleasure.

“Could I have peanut butter and jelly, please, Mother?” Gideon asked.

The women looked at him with displeased eyes. “Manners, Gideon,” Mother said.

“But Mother, I’m hungry, and I have to go to the bathroom too. Can we please just go home?” Gideon begged, unable to help himself.

Nona stood even straighter than usual, looking down at him. “I really think we should go to Burdoff’s first,” she said to Mother, her cruel eyes still on Gideon. “It’s right on the way to Chez Jean’s.” She turned and walked on rapidly, her heels clicking in time with Mother’s.

Gideon felt tears burning behind his eyes as he tried to keep up with them, the urge to pee getting more desperate with every step. His stomach ached and growled as he followed them into Burdoff’s Imports, and he felt as if his bladder would burst. A heavy floral scent assaulted his nose, making him sneeze several times and almost wet his pants.

He stopped to wipe his watery eyes. When he blinked them open again, he found himself in a sea of smooth-faced women in silk outfits, moving as one with a swish and a whisper, looking through racks and racks of clothing.

Frantically he searched for the blonde heads of Mother and Nona, but there seemed to be a crowd of them, all clicking heels and slender figures, all faces masked with make-up, shining heads of hair in browns, reds, and blondes turning here and there, nodding indifferently.

Gideon stopped several women with blonde hair, but none were Mother or Nona. Finally he asked one of them where a bathroom was. The woman pointed to a door at the back of the store, and Gideon ran to it, knowing that with each passing moment he would be in more and more trouble for getting lost.

After relieving himself and washing his hands, Gideon picked up his book. It fell open to a picture of the White Witch, her frozen face set in a heartless gaze. The tears that had been prickling behind his eyes finally overflowed, spilling down his cheeks. He sank down, sitting on the cold polished tiles of the bathroom floor and sobbed out loud.

The image of the witch swam before his eyes. Narnia had only one witch, I’ve got two of them, he thought. Two who treat me like nothing. He remembered his mother’s last birthday. Gideon had given her a bunch of daisies from a kind neighbor’s flowerpot, along with a handmade card. His mother had glanced at the card. “Really, Gideon,” she said. “You must work harder on your spelling.” Later that day he had found the forgotten daisies lying on the kitchen counter. As he looked at them, wilted in their carefully tied blue ribbon, he realized that his mother had never loved him.

I’m not nothing, Gideon thought, suddenly angry. And I don’t need them either. I won’t go back. But where can I go?

Slowly he pushed to his feet and pulled open the steel handle of the bathroom door.

At first Gideon thought he had opened a wrong door, for instead of the swish and bustle of Burdoff’s, he stepped into a garden. Astonished, he turned back to the bathroom, looking for another exit, but this was the only way out. I don’t remember a garden here, Gideon thought.

He stepped onto a soft cushion of moss and breathed in the fine smell of spring, not heavy and fake like Burdoff’s, but fresh and real. A warm breeze dried his damp cheeks as he breathed deeply again and again, forgetting everything but the warm sweet scent of lilac, rose, and other flowers he didn’t know the names of, but which soothed his heart and gave him a comforting feeling of coming home.

Gideon followed a flagstone path, enchanted by the garden. Ferns grew on each side, tall and protective, hemmed by delicate baby’s breath. Day lilies gladdened the walkway, followed by fiery snapdragons. On and on, Gideon trailed through the garden, sometimes recognizing flowers from his picture books, for he had never seen such an enchanted place as this near his house in the city.

At a clearing he stopped, listening. Someone, a woman, was singing in a throaty, crackling voice. He looked toward the sound, and saw a figure wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, kneeling and digging in the dirt. Gideon had never seen anyone covered in so much dirt! He watched her, fascinated.

The woman looked up, nodding at Gideon as though she had been expecting him. She was unlike anyone he had ever seen before. Her hair was different shades of gray and white, and it stuck out all over her head. And her face! It wasn’t tight, like Mother’s or Nona’s, but soft and lined with all kinds of wrinkles.

Gideon could see where the woman had smiled and frowned, had laughed, loved, felt happy and sad. Her life was written all over her face — nothing was stretched or pulled away or covered with make-up. Her eyes were not wide and cold, but warmly brown and crinkled, filled with kindness and laughter. Gideon thought he had never seen such a wonderful face in all his life.

“Well hello there!” The woman unfolded her hefty figure and stood, brushing a soiled hand across her forehead, leaving a smudge.

Gideon looked with wonder at her fingernails, which were unpolished and dirty underneath. He grinned. “I like your garden,” he said.

“Why thank you. I like it too. Tell me your name, young fella, and how you found me.”

“My name is Gideon. I’m eight. I got lost from Mother and Nona in Burdoff’s.”

The woman snorted. “That place again,” she said, frowning. “There’s a certain type that always seems to lose their kids in there.” She looked at Gideon, sticking out her hand, which Gideon took. “I’m pleased to meet you, Gideon. You may call me Grandma.”

“Hi, Grandma.” Gideon tried out the name, liking the homey sound of it.

“What book have you brought with you?”

Gideon held it up. “It’s about Narnia,” he said. “It’s my favorite book.”

Grandma smiled, crinkling her amazing face even more. “Oh, C.S. Lewis. I know him well. Very wise man. Would you like me to read some to you?”

“Yes please!” Gideon followed Grandma to a low-slung hammock stretched between two apple trees in a shady nook. He snuggled in next to her. She put an arm around him, and started reading in a rich, crackly voice that sounded like a campfire.

Gideon didn’t know how much time passed with Grandma; he knew only the comforting feeling of her arm around his shoulders, the sound of her voice reading the words he loved, the sway of the hammock, the warmth of her caring. Gideon never wanted it to end.

Finally Grandma closed the book. “Time is getting on, Gideon.”

Gideon nodded, but didn’t move.

“I know the way back to Burdoff’s,” she said, “if that’s what you want.”

Gideon looked into her eyes and shook his head. “Never,” he said. “I’ll never go back.”

“What about your mother and Nona?”

“They don’t want me.”

Grandma was quiet a moment. “Do you know this with your whole heart, Gideon? Will you feel sorry later, and wish you’d gone back?”

“I know it with my whole heart,” Gideon answered, without hesitation. “I want to stay here with you. Mother and Nona — I don’t hate them or anything. They just don’t want me. I just want them to have everything they want, you know, nice clothes and pretty faces, by themselves. They’ll be happier that way.”

Grandma closed her eyes for a long time. Gideon thought she had fallen asleep. Finally she opened her eyes and sighed deeply. “Then, Gideon, it is done. You are welcome to stay with me and the others who have come here.”

“Are there lots of children?” Gideon asked. What would it be like to have friends? he wondered.

“There are many like you, Gideon, who have come here. Children who were unwanted at home. Some have grown up and moved on; others stay. I came here as a little girl, even younger than you.”

“Grandma? Why do you look different? I mean, from everyone else?”

Grandma laughed. “Why Gideon,” she said. “This is what you’re supposed to look like when you get old. People outside have forgotten that they are supposed to get old. It’s part of nature.”

Gideon squeezed Grandma’s hand. “I hope I can be like you someday,” he said.

“If you stay long enough, Gideon, I will teach you to be a keeper of the gardens. You can be a friend to the children who come here, and someday, you can be the Grandpa who welcomes them, just as I have done with you.” She stood up. “Come along and meet the others. I have a feeling you’ll be hungry for supper.”

Gideon had forgotten his hunger, but now he was ravenous. He followed Grandma, giving the garden one more look. I’m home, he thought with a shiver of contentment. I’m finally home...

* * *

“Hey boss, what’s with the new girls?” The morning clerk at Burdoff’s frowned at the two figures leaning against the window.

The manager looked over his clipboard. “The night watch must have taken a late delivery. Dress ‘em up right and set ‘em up in lingerie.”

The clerk sighed and stood the two mannequins side by side. Not much variety in design anymore, he thought, noting the identical silver-blonde hairstyles and vacant wide blue eyes. He hefted one of them up under his arm. She seemed to look at him, her mouth set in an ever-so-slight upward curve. “Don’t get too excited now, girlie,” he said, and whistling, he carried her away to the lingerie department.

Copyright © 2007 by Branigan Grace

First published in Static Movement, February 2007

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