by Jessamyn Rains
Chiara had a hole the size of a golf ball under her ribs on the left side.
You could see right through it—clear to the other side of the room—and it stung when she touched it, burned when the air hit it, ached when she moved. You could see the outline of it through her blouse, a round sunken spot, the shape of an “o.”
Her fiance, a man named Stefan who had golden-brown flowing hair, dressed head-to-toe in white linen, and drank wheatgrass every morning, had broken off their engagement three weeks earlier. He said that Chiara was “too corporate” for him, and that he had to do what was right for his own happiness. There was something else about chakras and planetary alignments.
She wondered if her broken engagement had somehow caused this strange hole in her body, but she had never heard of such a thing, and she couldn’t find any answers on WebMD.
She consulted her friend Raine, who was grossed out and promptly quit returning her text messages.
She then consulted her doctor, who said with a sigh that he’d seen this sort of thing before, and that he couldn’t do much about it, so he wrote out prescriptions for painkillers and Xanax.
Another week went by. The hole grew larger. You could hear the wind whistling through it at times. Her colleague, Amelia, heard the whistling one day as they walked to their cars in the parking garage. They stood there and talked about it with their purses over their shoulders, their car keys in their hands.
“I think it’s just a normal part of the aging process,” Amelia said, as she unlocked her car. “Have you tried FURY?”
“What’s that?” Chiara asked.
“It’s a little boutique with products that are supposed to help these kinds of issues. I’ll text you the address,” Amelia said, getting into her car and starting it. She waved as she exited the parking garage.
That evening Chiara went to FURY—a cute little boutique on the upscale side— and bought a black camisole that said “rage” in pink letters across the front. It was soft and comfortable and protected the wound from air and friction, and when she wore the camisole, you couldn’t see the “o” under her clothes.
When another hole started forming above her left hip, Chiara talked to Amelia again over a cup of coffee in the break room. Amelia looked around and, ascertaining that no one was within earshot, told Chiara in a very low, discreet voice that there was a kind of cosmetic that could help, a sort of putty called “malice”. You fill the hole with malice, then you cover the spot with a liquid foundation that matches your skin. Kind of like patching up a hole in a wall and painting over it.
Chiara found the putty online and bought some. It came in an unmarked bag two days later. She opened the bag, and there was a flesh-colored pint-sized can with the word “malice” written in silver glitter on the front. She used it hesitantly and sparingly at first—putting malice inside her body seemed invasive, even destructive, somehow—but it gave her so much relief (not to mention an extra burst of energy and an edge to her work performance) that she began to apply it at least three times a day.
A few weeks later she started having pain in her face. And then her cheekbone on the right side gradually began to change shape, then to flatten, and her skin sagged on that side, and her appearance became very asymmetrical.
Her manager, Loretta, expressed her concern. She feared that Chiara’s appearance would be distracting when she met face-to-face with clients. Chiara then told her manager about her mysterious medical condition and her attempts to deal with it.
“The truth is,” Loretta said, “most of us get to a certain age and, under our clothes, we look like we have hail damage. That’s fine. But when you work in corporate America, your face has to look at least presentable.” Loretta then wrote the name and number of a hair and makeup stylist on a post-it note and handed it to Chiara. “If this doesn’t work,” Loretta said, “we may have to put you in the payroll office where no one will see you.”
Crispin—the stylist at New Beginnings Salon—was tanned and muscular with straight, spiky blond hair and olive green eyes. He wore a white button-down shirt rolled up to his elbows, and somehow balanced a pair of scissors behind his left ear.
He looked at Chiara in the mirror and examined her thick, dark hair. “You have gorgeous hair,” he said.
“Thanks,” Chiara answered.
“And you have perfect brows,” he said.
“AND you have amazing skin.”
“But, unfortunately, your face is caving in.”
He walked slowly around her, looking at her from different angles, both directly and in the mirror.
“Let me ask you something,” he said, facing her, with his arms crossed over his chest. “Who did this to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Someone hurt you,” Crispin said. “Who was it?”
“Well…my fiancé dumped me a couple of months ago…”
“What’s his name?”
“Of course his name is Stefan. What a stupid name.”
“It is kind of stupid.”
“Repeat after me, Chiara,” he said, kneeling so that he was eye level with her. “Stefan is a nasty, ugly…go on, say it…”
“Stefan is a nasty, ugly…” she repeated woodenly.
“…stupid, fat…he’s not exactly fat, though—and he’s really not stupid or ugly either—“
“Just say it! It will make you feel better!” he urged.
“Ok, stupid, ugly, fat…” she repeated
“But I like dogs!”
“Don’t you feel better now?”
Chiara smiled a little.
Crispin stood up and began rummaging around in a drawer.
“We’re going to try a product called ‘slander,’ he said, opening a round container and pulling something out that looked like white foam. “It’s kind of like a prosthetic. Or a moldable mask. You have to build your face up with it—sort of like clay—but once it’s on, and you’ve got your hair and makeup on, you’ll look so good—better than ever—and you’ll have like a million followers on social media—and Stefan will be so, so sorry.”
She sat in that salon chair for the two hours that it took for Crispin to apply, affix, and cover the slander, and then when it was over, she had to admit that she looked better than ever. And in the following days, she felt like a new woman. She couldn’t stop looking at herself in the mirror. There was a new glimmer in her eye, and she had a new fluency with language; where before, she was afflicted with a deer-in-the-headlights syndrome—especially when she was criticized, insulted, or disagreed with—she now had a snarky reply for everything and everyone. She could cut deeply with her words, her selfies, her memes—even her Youtube video curations.
And her social media presence was phenomenal; her likes were growing in a “J” curve. In addition, she was bringing more and more clients to her company, and Loretta sang her praises daily.
She was considering a side career as an Instagram influencer—helping women embrace their flaws while simultaneously embracing products that help disguise or eliminate their flaws—while simultaneously learning to insult those who point out their flaws—and she was pretty sure Stefan was somewhere crying in his wheatgrass, regretting that he had ever let her go.
That is, until she saw pictures of him on Instagram holding hands with his new girlfriend in front of a decrepit barn with the caption “I’ve never felt so alive.”
Her face began to burn.
At first it felt like wind blowing on dry skin; then it felt like a mild sunburn.
Then it began to feel like a chemical burn of some kind. Then it became nearly unbearable.
“You’re having an allergic reaction to the slander,” Crispin said when she went to see him.
“What do I do now? Is there some kind of hypo-allergenic brand I can use?” she asked.
“I’m afraid this is all there is. Can you stand it? Just during the week? You can take it off on the weekends if you need to.”
She stood it for nearly one more week.
By Thursday she had a fever, and by Friday she was covered with a rash. She was sent home from work. Utterly miserable, she removed the prosthetic, washed off the makeup, took off the rage camisole, and removed the malice from the holes in her body. She put on an old comfy t-shirt and sweats and ate a bowl of ramen noodles and went to sleep.
When she woke up, she felt better: the fever was gone, and the red spots on her body had faded almost to nothing.
But there were the holes, and they ached; and there was her face, and it ached too, and it was half-caved in—monstrous-looking; and there was Stefan on Instagram with his new girlfriend. And she couldn’t stop thinking about him and his flowing golden-brown hair and all those times they ate dried seaweed by candlelight and all their conversations about their dreams and plans and all their late-night texting—not to mention her half-altered wedding-gown and her half-formed wedding plans— and she cried all day over a bowl of soggy Rice Krispies.
By afternoon she pulled herself together and called Crispin and asked him if he’d stop by her house after his shift.
“Well, I don’t usually do house calls, but…”
“Would you come by as a friend?” she asked. “I just want to talk to you.”
When Crispin arrived, Chiara invited him to her kitchen table for a cup of herbal tea.
“Loretta said that if I go back to work with my face like this, she’ll put me in the payroll office,” Chiara said. “What do you think I should do?”
Crispin was silent for a moment. “I didn’t want to bring this up in the shop because I didn’t want any of my clients to overhear,” he said, “but there is another option.”
“Well?” Chiara said. “What is it?”
“You can go off the grid.”
“What do you mean, ‘go off the grid’?”
“Well, this place where we live–” he gestured, as if to include everything visible– “is powered by a certain source–but off the grid, there is an alternative power source. It’s just a whole different system. Some say it’s the original one.”
“What, like wind power?”
“Like a combination of wind, water, and…other stuff.”
“How do you get there?”
“You know those weirdos holding signs at the edge of town? They claim to know the way.”
“Sounds like a conspiracy theory, Crispin,” Chiara said.
“Let me know if you decide to go,” Crispin said. “My Aunt Karen owns a little shop off the grid. I’ll give you the address. I may end up there, too, before it’s all over,” Crispin added.
And for the first time, Chiara noticed that Crispin’s hair wasn’t as spiky as usual, and that he had dark circles around his eyes.
“What happened to you, Crispin?” she asked.
“I can’t talk about it,” he said.
“My face might cave in,” he answered, and they both laughed.
The sun was bright and warm the day she went off the grid.
She loaded her car up with the bare necessities, wrote the address Crispin had given her on a post-it note, texted her boss and her friends “goodbye,” and stopped at Starbucks for one last latte. She turned the car radio on, rolled the windows down, and let her hair fly in the breeze. Her cramped-up thoughts unfurled, and she began to feel something like hope.
At the edge of town, there was a portly man in overalls and thick glasses, holding a wooden sign with arrows and strange symbols on it.
“Excuse me,” she said, motioning him to come over to her car. “I’m trying to find this place.” She handed him the post-it note. “It’s off the grid,” she said, “and I was told you might give me directions.”
“Alrighty,” the man said. “Just so happens I got the directions right here on my sign.” He held the sign so that it faced Chiara, and he traced its arrows and symbols with his finger as he spoke.
“You gotta follow this here road till it ends in a ‘T.’ Then you’ll take a left–it’s a narrow gravel road called Delores Lane–and you follow that till you come to the Zoe River. Then you’ll take a right into the river, and go with the current till it stops.”
“A right into the river?”
“Yep. That’ll do ya.”
“Do I need a boat?”
“Transportation will be provided.”
“By the powers that be. Here, you can have this,” he said, and he handed her the wooden sign.
Her trip out of town to the end of the road was pleasant. The sky was wide and blue with fluffy white clouds. There were rolling hills with flocks of sheep, picturesque houses, trees that gently swayed, sparkling streams that tumbled over rocks, and fields of flowers.
After several hours, she came to the end of the road and stopped. She saw the green street sign–”Delores Lane”–angled to the left. Otherwise, she seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing but trees and tall grasses. She switched off the engine and looked at her phone: No Service. She rummaged in her purse for a bag of trailmix. When she finished eating, there was a profound silence.
Then a light rain began to fall.
She started the car up again and took the narrow road toward the Zoe River. The road was gravelly and full of ups and downs and twists and turns and bumps. The rain grew faster and heavier, and the road became muddy. Then the rain grew so heavy that she couldn’t see to drive.
She pulled off to the side of the road to wait out the storm.
She watched the rain splatter and splash against the windshield. And then she heard a rushing, roaring sound, and she saw a wall of water in the sky on the left side. It reached up and slapped her car sideways –whirled it around in a circle–tossed it into the air–and deposited it onto the river.
The car was afloat but was sinking fast. Desperately, Chiara opened the car door, pushed with all her might, and the water rushed in, and she was submerged.
As the water piled over her head, she was sure that this was the end.
She perceived in a flash that her life was not all that it might have been, and that this was not solely Stefan’s fault. Her heart cried out for another chance, and as it did so, her head cleared the water.
She gasped for breath.
The river was wide and deep, and moving swiftly, moving her along with it. She paddled and kicked her legs and tried to float on her back. She watched the car spin away from her as it sank, until finally, it was gone.
And then she saw, within arm’s reach, the wooden sign that the man at the edge of town had given her, floating on top of the water. She reached for it with a trembling arm and found that, to her surprise, she could lean on it like a paddle board, and that it would support her weight without sinking.
After an interminable time, the rain began to let up, and the sun began to shine again. The dark clouds parted and turned soft and white, and the river moved more gently, and Chiara forgot her misery as she watched a rainbow form in the sky. She seemed to be drifting toward it.
The river narrowed and slowed down, and when it became shallow enough to wade in, she climbed onto the bank and saw that she was at the edge of a little town.
There were little houses with neat backyards and clotheslines. One woman was taking down a bunch of dry clothes in a basket.
“Didn’t it rain out here?” Chiara asked in surprise, eyeing the dry clothes.
The woman turned around and looked at her. She was wearing a blue and purple muu-muu.
“It’s been dry as a bone all day,” she said, “but you are sopping wet. You just come up outta the river?”
“Yes,” Chiara answered, suddenly feeling ashamed as she remembered her disfigured face and felt her wet clothes clinging to the holes in her body.
“I got somethin’ for ya,” the woman said, digging around in her laundry basket. She pulled out a white terry-cloth bathrobe. “Try this on,” she said, throwing it toward Chiara. “It oughtta have some sunlight in it still. It’ll dry you out quick.” Chiara picked it up and put it on: it was the softest thing she had ever felt, and it radiated warmth, all the way down to her bones.
“Why don’t you come in and have a cup of tea?” the lady asked, “and once you’ve dried off, I’ll give you a ride wherever you need to go.” Chiara followed the woman to a sunny little kitchen table.
The woman’s name was Anna, and she listened sympathetically to Chiara’s story. “I know the place you’re trying to find,” she said, when Chiara mentioned Crispin’s Aunt Karen. “I’ve been to Karen’s a few times myself. She’s got some good stuff there in her little shop. Her place is down there on Main Street, right between the hardware store and the donut shop. Just about three minutes from here.”
By the time she had finished telling her story, Chiara was completely dry.
“There’s something powerful about his robe you gave me,” she said to Anna.
“You betcha,” Anna said. “You just hold onto it.”
Then the two of them got into Anna’s pickup truck and drove to Karen’s shop.
Karen’s Thrift and Re-Gift was on a quaint little street downtown, with the hardware store and the donut shop on either side. There were mannequins in the windows with old-fashioned wigs and pointy elbows wearing vintage clothes and costume jewelry.
Chiara saw her own reflection in the window and hesitated a moment, then went inside.
Bells jangled as the old wooden door swung open. The shop had green shag carpet and brown paneled walls; it was full of old clothes, old furniture, old books, and obsolete technology.
There was no one behind the counter, and a lone woman roamed the store with a wicker basket hanging from the crook of her elbow.
Chiara wandered, overwhelmed, uncertain. She fingered the garments: none of them looked particularly inspiring. She didn’t know what she was supposed to be looking for, anyway.
Then a voice interrupted her thoughts. “Excuse me, I may be able to help.”
Chiara turned around and saw the woman with the basket.
“I don’t want to bother you,” the woman said, “but can I help you find something?”
“Well…” Chiara began, “I don’t even know if I’m in the right place…I have some…sort of medical issues and someone told me—“
“Yes,” the woman said. “Forgive me if this is presumptuous, but I’m familiar with your condition. I’ve been where you are. Oh, probably not exactly—but I’ve been someplace similar. My name is Karen, by the way. This is my shop. May I help you find a few things?”
“Ok,” Chiara said. “I’m willing to try just about anything at this point.”
Karen walked past an aisle of skirts, past an aisle of curtains, and over to a bin of miscellaneous items. She picked up a bottle of something, then a jar of something, and then she walked over to a row of brightly-colored garments. “Just go into one of those fitting rooms,” Karen said, pointing to a row of three old-looking doors, “and I’ll bring you some things to try on.
Chiara stepped inside one of the fitting rooms. It was small and square, full of bright light and mirrors, with a folding chair and a couple of hooks on the walls.
She tried not to look in the mirror, but the room was completely mirrored, and she saw herself from every angle. Her face was still misshapen, but it seemed different somehow; there was new color in her cheeks and in her eyes. Chiara lifted her shirt and looked at the holes in her middle: they were still there, but they were opaque; you couldn’t see through them to the other side of the room.
Then she thought she saw a shadow reflected in the mirror behind her. She whirled around and looked, but it was gone. She looked at herself again, straight into her own eyes, and there was the shadow, in her peripheral vision. Only this time, there were many shadows: wispy, ghostly silhouettes of people.
There was a knock on the dressing room door. “Everything OK in here?” Karen asked.
“What do I do now?” Chiara asked.
The woman pulled a bottle out of her basket and handed it to her under the dressing room door.
“This is a tonic for your face called ‘humility.’”
“‘Humility?’ Chiara asked. “Why do I need humility when I have been so thoroughly humiliated?”
“I know it sounds counterintuitive. But I think you’ll find it liberating.”
Chiara sniffed it.
“It stinks,” she said. “It smells like sulfur.”
“It will smell good once it’s on,” Karen said. Chiara poured some of the product onto her fingertips and applied it gently to her face in a circular motion, as per the instructions. Almost immediately, there was a cooling sensation. Then there was a warming sensation. Then the sulfur smell began to fade, and then there was a piney, woodsy scent.
“It smells better now,” Chiara said, and the more she inhaled, the more rich and complex the smell became: it became spicey, then floral, then woodsy again.
Chiara looked at herself: her face was still asymmetrical. But it bothered her a bit less.
“Now, try this for your wounds,” Karen said, handing Chiara a jar under the door. It was a kind of salve called ‘kindness’. “You’ll find that this smells nice too.” Chiara smelled it: it was fresh and citrusy.
“Is it going to hurt?”
“It might feel uncomfortable.”
Chiara carefully applied it to her wounds. It did feel uncomfortable—heavy and unnatural somehow.
“You’ve gotten used to the emptiness, so of course it will feel strange at first. Maybe even burdensome,” Karen said.
“Will it make my body whole again?”
“It will make your soul whole again.”
The final product was an article of clothing—a variegated, iridescent tunic of sorts. It looked alternately like leaves, or rainbows, or striated rock, depending on which way you turned it. Chiara looked at the tag and saw the words “Compassion: Size I.”
She put it on: It seemed tight around her neck, and she began to have trouble breathing.
Then she saw the shadowy forms again, and this time, they were clearer, and in color: it was Stefan and his girlfriend, holding hands in front of an old barn, smiling into each other’s eyes.
Then a new thought tormented Chiara: was she supposed to somehow muster up compassion for him? Would he take everything from her? Even her very last drops of hope, of goodwill?
“I can’t do this!” Chiara said.
“Let me in,” Karen said. Chiara opened the door.
“See those people in the mirror?” Chiara said, pointing.
“Take off the tunic and look at the tag again,” Karen instructed.
Karen helped her ease the garment back over her head and showed her the tag, which was folded on both sides so that only part of it was showing. Chiara unfolded the tag and read it aloud: “God’s Compassion. Size Infinite.”
“Plus, you had it on backwards,” Karen said. She helped her put the tunic back on again and smoothed it over her shoulders and back. Chiara looked down at it: The colors shimmered and moved; even the texture of the fabric seemed to change. It was rough and warm at first—like burlap, or wool; then it flowed like silk; then it breathed like cotton.
Chiara began to cry tears of relief. She could breathe, and the pain was quieted.
She sat down in the metal folding chair and rested for a few minutes.
“There is enough compassion for everyone,” Karen said. “Look in the mirror.”
“I’d rather not,” Chiara answered, with a little laugh, but then she looked up and saw the miracle: she was healed.
Five years later, Chiara was still living off the grid. She had grown to love the quaint little town. Karen planned to retire, and within the year, Chiara would take over the shop. She would spruce the place up: she would add some herbs in hanging planters, some vintage automobile memorabilia, and some interesting teas and pastries.
Crispin, who had gone off the grid after accidentally stabbing himself with the scissors he wore behind his ear, would be one of her colleagues.
And in the coming years, they would help numberless strangers, a few old friends, and even an enemy or two.