Beauty Chapter One

After the last several months of upheaval, my husband and I are finally moved and settled into a house with internet. It’s amazing how much I took internet for granted until I didn’t have reliable access to it. I mean, internet’s everywhere anymore, right? Not exactly.

Anyway, no more moving woes. One plus to not being able to post for the last bit is that some stories have had the chance to germinate in my brain and now I get to share them with you.

This next one I might just have to make into a longer piece. Let me know what you think. It’s good to ‘see’ all of you again=)

Beauty

“You’re beautiful in a pathetic sort of way.” His fingers held her chin, forcing her to look at him, to see his half grin like he was apologizing for his words, to see the quirk of his perfect brow as he waited for her reaction.

She imagined she was the bug some boys liked to pull legs off of. It couldn’t have been worse as the group on the field stared, shocked at first because he stopped to talk to her and then because of what he said.

No one spoke to her, almost ever. She was included simply by default of their parents assuming they’d watch out for her, poor, crippled Lila Dean.

The man released her chin with a disappointed click of his tongue. He pivoted and walked away, back toward Main Street.

“Who was that?” Billy Roy asked.

“Never seen him,” Andre Mel shrugged his narrow shoulders. He was an odd one just as his name indicated, but he was good with a ball so he was accepted.

“Creepy,” Mary Mae shivered.

They all agreed and turned back to their game without looking at Lila Dean. Billy Roy turned last, his eyes swept past her. He’d have seen her, truly looked at her, if he’d paused for even a second.

It was the closest any of them came to acknowledging her. Lila Dean’s stomach clenched with gratitude that Billy Roy came so close. He was the only one who consistently did so.

Pulling her legs tight to her chest, Lila Dean hugged them, feeling the pull of her scars down her right side. She’d never be pretty.

Photo courtesy of Sebring's Snapshots

Photo courtesy of Sebring’s Snapshots

That was what fire did to a body. It robbed it of flexibility to play ball or smooth skin to dress up. It robbed one of acceptance.

Lila Dean stared at Main Street although the strange man was gone now. Why’d he come out just to say such cruel words?

***

She still pondered the question hours later sitting in the inn. Every one ate in the inn at night. The miners came in after work, trailing their dust and sweat with them like a cloud.

Lila Dean sat at the usual table, waiting for her father to gather their food. He brought two bowls and set one in front of her before digging into his own. Dirt smudged his face and out lined his nails.

She stared at him, watching him eat, but he never looked up. Maybe she looked too much like her mother except with a bunch of horrible scars. She didn’t know. Her mother died in the fire. Giving up that he’d look at her or say a word of blessing like other families did, Lila Dean spooned stew into her mouth. It tasted like mush soaked in gravy but she tilted her head trying not to lose any out the side of her mouth where her lips didn’t quite meet anymore. If she moved slowly, she usually managed without making a complete mess.

Her father finished long before she and, leaving his bowl, he stood to join two men by the hearth.

The men were Marcus Roy, Billy Roy’s father, and Sheldon Lea, an old spinster who refused to retire from the mine. They were her father’s friends but she’d never spoken with them.

Almost spilling stew down her front, Lila Dean returned her attention to her spoon, and caught the strange man sitting in the corner watching her. He tilted his cup to her and drank before looking away.

Lila Dean felt like a deer frozen in fright. What did the man want? He wasn’t a miner. He lacked the dirt caked around his nails.

Finishing her stew, she gathered the bowls and retreated to the kitchen, keeping her head down just in case the man looked up again.

The kitchen sat empty as the cook was eating with the men in the main room. Lila Dean dumped the bowls into the barrel full of hot, sudsy water and buried her hands in after to wash the dishes. The heat stung her left hand like tiny needles but her right couldn’t feel it except as a dull sensation of warmth.

“Hiding?”

She jumped, splashing hot water across her front. To keep her pained cry silent, she bit her lip. Then she peeked over her shoulder.

The stranger.

“Maybe.” The word came out barely above a whisper.

“I meant what I said earlier.”

“Not exactly flattering.” Lila Dean went back to scrubbing bowls.

Footsteps and then the stranger stood across the barrel from her.

“Perhaps not,” he admitted, “but honest.”

“Maybe,” she said again.

“Want to help me with something?” The man grasped her arm, stopping her from drying a bowl. She looked up, surprised, but then couldn’t look away. He had that same quirk to his brow.

“What?”

“You’ve heard of the uncut ruby?”

Lila Dean swallowed, picturing Marcus Roy’s radiant face the day he’d emerged from the mine with the massive gem. It was the day the town knew it’d survive.

“Maybe,” she whispered.

The stranger sighed and released her arm. The expression on his face looked like relief.

“I need that ruby,” he said.

“Why?” the ruby was the town’s prize, the reason they still existed.

“Some men took my little girl,” he leaned against the counter as he explained. “They demanded the ruby in exchange for her. I couldn’t buy it even if Marcus Roy would sell and I can’t get to it. The only way in is through a window about your size.”

Lila Dean set the bowl down gently. It still sounded like a thud.

“You want me to steal the ruby?”

“For my baby girl, yes.”

Lila Dean frowned at her red hands as she tried to piece together what sounded wrong.

“Why you?”

“What do you mean?”

“The men who took your girl, they had to believe you could get the ruby. Why you?”

He grimaced. “While drinking one night I boasted about having a similar gem.”

“Why?”

“Nosy much?”

Lila Dean cringed and looked away. He wanted her to steal the town’s pride. Squaring her shoulders, she forced herself to look up and wait for his answer.

“Fine. I like to gamble. I needed the men to believe I could pay up when I couldn’t, so I bluffed.”

Her heart went out to this man’s daughter. Her own father may not like to look at her but at least he protected her.

“For your girl, I’ll do it but then you leave and you promise to protect your girl.”

The stranger put his hands together like he was praying. “Promise.” Then he smiled and stuck his hand out. “Michael.”

Lila Dean eyed the hand. Michael what? Everyone had a second name. She decided she didn’t care. The less she knew about him, the better.

“Lila Dean.” She shook his hand, feeling the slight pull on her scars.

“Let me show you this window.”

***

She wasn’t agile. Lila Dean gritted her teeth against the pain in her right side. Michael’s window was for the pantry in the Roy’s house. On the outside, the ground came up to just a few feet below the sill. On the inside, the floor dropped a good five feet, sunk below the ground to keep things cool.

Lila Dean’s left foot barely touched the sacks of flour stacked below. Her right foot sat stuck over the windowsill. If she’d been thinking, she would have crawled through feet first on her stomach and dropped both feet at the same time. Hindsight.

Instead, she’d crawled through like the sill was a fence. Left side first sideways.

Her right side screamed as she stretched just a little more to get her foot over the ledge.

Her scars burned like they were tearing. A whimper escaped her as her foot came free and she tumbled onto the floor.

She stilled, waiting for the pain to subside while she listened to see if her noisy entrance went unnoticed.

Nothing stirred in the dark house. Lila Dean rolled over to push to her feet. Moving through the kitchen and then the dining room, she gawked.

The kitchen could hold most of her house within its walls and the mineworkers could fit with room to spare at the dining table. So much space for just a few people. Like herself and her dad, it was just Billy and Marcus Roy. Lila Dean didn’t know what happened to Mrs. Roy.

She shoved the thought of the Roy’s from her mind.

In the living room, Lila Dean’s eyes were pulled to the top of the hearth. On a wooden pedestal sat a red gem the size of a strawberry, all rough edges and dark light reflected from the single candle left burning beside it.

She glanced around but only shadows cast from the candle flickered at the edges of the room. To reach the gem she stepped up onto the fireplace. The stone warmed the soles of her bare feet. Her fingers closed around the ruby. It was warm too.

“Lila Dean?”

She froze. Guilt made her hand shake. He said my name. Somehow, even in her moment of guilt, she felt gratitude that Billy Roy would acknowledge her. Silly…no stupid.

Turning with the ruby cradled in her hand, she met Billy Roy’s confused eyes.

She tried to say his name but all that came out  was a horse, “Roy.”

“What are you doing?” he still didn’t look away from her. She savored the moment that, for once, those brown eyes actually saw her.

“I—“ She dropped her eyes in shame. How could she say, I’m stealing from you? If he ever looked at her again, it’d be with anger and hatred. She couldn’t stand that.

She kept her eyes down.

She didn’t hear him move but a moment later his hand grasped her own around the ruby. He opened her fist to look.

“I see,” he whispered.

“Roy—“ again nothing else came out. She swallowed.

“Dean,” the tone was teasing. Lila Dean looked up in shock. His eyes were still confused but the anger she expected wasn’t there. “Don’t know why you need it but you wouldn’t take it without really needing to.” He closed her fingers back around the rough gem and stepped back.

He didn’t cringe at the scars lacing her fingers.

Lila Dean stared at him, confused. Then he smiled, a small lift to the corners of his lips.

She couldn’t stand it. Stuffing the ruby into her pocket, she ran.

The main door was right there. She smacked into it before remembering to shove the locking bar up. Bolting across the porch, she tripped, stutter stepped down the steps and skidded on her hands and knees at the bottom.

Blood trickled from her palms and stained the knees of her pants but she didn’t notice until she stopped, puffing, at the tree where she was to meet Michael.

Roy’s smile stuck in her mind like the dirt under her father’s nails. He trusted her. Why?

“Got it?”

Lila Dean jumped. She wasn’t used to people approaching her. It was unnerving.

She turned, fiddling to pull the ruby from her pocket and be done with it. The rough corners snagged on the fabric.

Michael grinned, holding his hand out. The look froze her.  Something lit his eyes with an ugly light.

“What’s your little girl’s name?” she asked.

“What?” He finally met her eyes.

“Your girl’s name?”

His jaw twitched before he controlled it and his expression turned pained.

Is that real? Lila Dean wasn’t sure. The expression didn’t fit with what she’d seen a moment before.

“Laura,” Michael said.

It was just a name. Lila Dean’s fingers closed hard around the ruby still in her pocket.

I’m a fool.

“How old is she?” she asked.

The twitch came back in his jaw. Lila Dean took a step back.

“Five.”

He snatched at Lila Dean’s arm just as she jerked away. The sleeve tore. She ran, leaving the fabric in his hand.

He cursed and his heavy footfalls crashed after her. Lila Dean’s lungs burned. She never ran and now, twice in one night, she pushed her body for speed. Her chest protested with fierce fire and, judging from the crashing behind her, it wasn’t enough.

Giving up on speed, Lila Dean veered left, up the hill and toward the mine. Its dark, gaping mouth appeared before her. Without considering the dangers, she ran inside and rolled herself into one of the carts waiting inside. Her breathing rasped in the darkness, almost loud enough to echo.

Quiet!

She sucked in air and held it for a count of five before letting it out slowly.

“Stupid girl!” Michael’s voice exploded not far from her, amplified by the close space of the mine.

Lila Dean jumped and smacked the side of the cart. The thud echoed off the walls like a bell.

“Can’t hide in there forever,” Michael said.

The silence lengthened. Lila Dean listened. He was still there. If she held her breath, she could just make out the whisper of his breathing.

Peeking over the side of the cart, Lila Dean waited for her eyes to adjust until she could see the faint outline of the mine’s mouth. Michael’s dark shape stood there, leaning against the left side. He didn’t seem inclined to venture farther in.

Lila Dean decided to trust the dark. Unlike Michael, she wasn’t backlit by the faint light from the moon. Pulling herself out of the cart, she reached her hand out for the wall. Its rough, cool texture greeted her like an old friend.

“Had you believing,” Michael said and Lila Dean jumped again. Thankfully there was nothing to hit this time.

She glanced over her shoulder but he still leaned against the entrance.

“Didn’t think you’d care about details or I’d have had a whole picture in my head about little Laura…” he described his imaginary little girl. Lila Dean let his words cover the soft crunch of her steps. He paused and she paused until he started again.

“I do have gambling debts,” he continued. “Owe a lot and they’ll take a lot in payment. Maybe an arm or…”

Lila Dean’s hand hit empty space. She turned into the tunnel and, as she moved into it, Michael’s voice faded. It was a secondary entrance. Only there for if the entrance caved in but Lila Dean knew about it because of Sheldon Lea. The old spinster showed it to her right after the fire. He led her down it to relieve her fears of losing her father too. She wouldn’t lose both parents, he said—most likely. Sheldon Lea tended to be honest.

By the time she reached ground level and made her way home, it was late into the night. She wondered if Michael was still waiting at the entrance of the mine. Would he give up before the workers arrived?

Lila Dean cringed. She didn’t really care but her sleeve was missing, her palms and knees were bloody and her clothes were covered in dust from the mine. What would she tell her father?

She hesitated on the small porch but then squared her shoulders and entered.

A single candle burned on the table and her father sat writing in his ledger.

“Never again,” he said.

“Yes, Sir,” she answered.

He didn’t look up. Lila Dean went to her room to change, for once glad he didn’t look at her.

Pulling the ruby from her pocket, she set it on her nightstand, remembering Billy Roy’s smile. She’d wronged him. She wasn’t sure how yet but she vowed she’d make it right.

The End

Blessings,

Jennifer