A feast of opportunity lay before Marissa on New Year’s Eve, many the same drunk options she had on any given eve; Jack’s, Gimp’s, a random bar in Juliette. There was a party she could stop by. An invitation to dinner she hadn’t officially declined. The more she considered her options, the more she favored the idea of staying home.
She stepped closer to the full-length mirror in her bedroom, combed her fingers through her long blonde hair, freshly styled with white chardonnay highlights and warm honey lowlights. Whipping it into a messy knot, she loosened random tendrils, curled them around her finger, and left them to brush along her cheek in the way that invited men to touch. She glossed her pouted lips, pinched her skin to a blush pink, let the silk kimono slip from her shoulders and scrutinized her naked form.
As always, her eyes were first drawn to the scars across her abdomen. Time had healed the web of lines to pale tracts, nearly invisible from afar, but she would always see them as they once were; angry and raw, blood red and weeping. Tracing each line with a light touch of her fingertips, she journeyed the memory for a moment, then moved on.
She’d gotten lazy at the gym, careless with calories. Her thighs jiggled, as did her ass. Her belly, usually tight and defined, looked soft, bloated. Turning sideways, she contracted her muscles to pull her flesh in tight, then relaxed and pushed the pudge out further. One hand above, one below, she pretended, just for a moment, that the tiny bump she cradled was the creation of life.
Before the phantom ache could take control and settle in, she shifted her attention to her breasts. Double D, heavy in her hands, they too had near-invisible scars, but she had elected for those. Scheduled during a time of anguish, paid for by a guilty conscious, her breasts were the only hint of beauty to her horrid, disfigured body. They disgusted her. Yet, she loved them.
With a dab of perfume in her cleavage, her naked form wrapped once more in silk, she left her solitude and sought the company of others. She still didn’t feel like leaving the house. With Kitty having retired to bed early with a headache, she settled for Mike.
In the spirit of gifting experience and memory instead of toss-away junk for Christmas, Kitty had given Mike a key to the house, and Tommy’s old room. Kitty hadn’t asked Marissa’s permission first, or even for her forgiveness after. Having lived so many years surrounded by her mother’s hoard, Marissa had grown accustomed to her own needs and desires being cast aside to make room for other people’s trash. She just thought, maybe, this one time, in the spirit of Christmas, her feelings could have been taken into consideration before Kitty started bringing strays into the house again. Instead, she’d received a laminated membership card to the Allman Falls public library and a candy cane heart.
It wasn’t all bad. Along with a sad sack of clothes and framed photo of his absentee wife, Ashley, Mike had brought with him his Labrador pup, Bella. Her sweet doggy breath and eager morning kisses helped offset the stench of Mike’s feet and his ever-presence in the house. Marissa considered Bella to be Mike’s gift to her. As gift to him, she’d helped pack Ashley’s crap from the apartment then dropped it off at Martha’s house for safekeeping.
However, now, a week later, tortured by his endless flipping of channels, Marissa seriously began to regret her foolhardy acceptance.
“Just pick something, already!”
“Trying,” Mike said on a grumble from his slouch at the other end of the sofa. “There’s nothing on.”
“There’s got to be a New Year’s Eve ball-drop special on somewhere,” she said, semi-seriously. It had been her favorite way to spend New Year’s Eve as a kid—Dick Clark and sparkling Kool-Aid, anxiously counting down the seconds until midnight with her brother and Kitty.
As Mike continued to scroll, Marissa wrapped a blanket around her legs and moved the large bowl of popcorn from the coffee table to the cushion between them. Bella sat straight, pretty and proper, one paw on Marissa’s leg. Ears up, eyes sad, she gazed longingly at each salted buttery treat that made its way from the bowl to Marissa’s mouth without falling. She sat so pretty and patient, Marissa let a kernel slip. Bella caught it mid-drop, like a pro.
“Here, you try,” Mike said, surrendering the remote to Marissa.
She punished his indecision with the Hallmark Channel.
“What?” she asked innocently, hiding a smirk.
Neither of them watched the marathon of holiday rom-coms. He scratched at a scab on his head and texted Ashley while she picked up her laptop to do some light, Internet stalking.
For the past few days, she’d been keeping social media tabs on the potential pastor/jerk-wad rapist, Tyler Tomek. She’d Googled him, friended him, and followed him. She’d learned nothing of value. Nor anything of interest. The man presented himself as professionally polished, slightly self-important, and completely void of any sense of individuality beneath the meticulously crafted veneer.
The pictures he shared of his wife and children were as stiff and posed as stock photos. His musings read like plagiarized lines from self-help books. His investment company’s website looked prepackaged, with only the name and address customized to differentiate them from the competition. His profile listed numerous degrees from expensive universities and community service projects that sounded pretentious, at best.
“What does the Rotary Club do, anyway?” Marissa asked Mike.
“I dunno.” He lifted a shoulder in disinterested shrug. “Isn’t that an old lady thing, like Tupperware?”
She rolled her eyes. He was no help.
“Why?” He leaned in close, nosing into her business. “What’re you doing over here, anyway?”
She closed her laptop. “Nothing that concerns you.”
“Whatever.” He surrendered easily and returned to his side of the sofa.
Marissa returned to stalking.
The more she dug into Tyler Tomek’s bland suburban life, the sleazier he seemed. His online ‘friend’ count was double the entire population of Allman Falls, but he didn’t appear to hang out with anyone. She could find no candid shots, no pets, no vacation pictures. Was he intentionally making himself look uninteresting and scandal-free, like a burgeoning politician? Or a serial killer?
Looking through her own friends list, she sought out the guys from high school who had hung in the same crowd as Tyler, played on the same teams, dated the same girls. Many of them still lived in Allman Falls or Juliette, farmed or worked dead-end jobs, same as their parents had. They’d married the girl next door, procreated, got divorced. Some had moved on to bigger cities, different girls, to what they thought would be better lives, but only ended up being more of the same.
All were older, wiser, more hardened by life, but no matter if they’d stayed or they’d gone, whether they’d found fortune or suffered loss, they were still the same guys they’d always been. They’d kept the same friends, retained similar hobbies. They still got drunk on weekends and did stupid shit together.
Marissa glanced over at Mike, wondered if he was the same guy he’d been in high school. She couldn’t imagine he’d changed much. Even as a kid, he was probably always a little greasy, a little hang dog, smelling a little like Corn Nuts.
“Hey.” She jabbed his arm. He’d long since put his phone down and had become enthralled in the budding romance on the television screen. “Do you ever get the feeling someone’s pretending to be a person they’re not?”
“All the time,” Mike said, his eyes still focused on the screen. Chomping on popcorn, he smiled at the cheesy dialogue. “It’s human nature. Especially with addicts.”
“No, I mean, do you ever look at a person’s life and just know everything about him is complete bullshit? Like he’s too good, too perfect, too… I don’t know.” She struggled to find the right word.
“Contrived?” he offered.
“Vanilla,” she decided.
That drew his interest. “How so?”
She moved the popcorn out of the way, scooted closer so he could see her laptop. “Look through this guy’s profile and tell me any of it seems real.”
He clicked through the photos, read a couple posts. “Is this that new pastor guy you got a crush on?”
“It wasn’t a crush.”
He grunted his disbelief. “The guy’s definitely vanilla, but I don’t think he’s faking it. I think he’s just that boring.”
“He was class president. Captain of the football team.”
Mike rolled his eyes. “Yeah, so? He’s still boring as hell.”
“But he threw the best parties, dated the most popular girls.”
“Did his parents have money?” Mike asked.
She sighed. “I guess.”
“A rich kid in a small town? No doubt all the girls slept with him and all the guys acted like he was king shit. That doesn’t mean they liked him. They just wanted to play with his toys, tag along on his vacations, experiment with his drugs. Do any of ’em still hang with him now that they’re all grown up, making their own money?”
She’d done enough prying to know it was unlikely, but she wasn’t ready to concede. “He left town.”
“He didn’t go far. If they were real friends, they’d still get together for concerts or ball games, hunting, golf, doesn’t matter. People love an excuse to go for a drive and drink a beer.”
“Face it, the guy’s boring. He married a vanilla woman, had vanilla sex, made some vanilla babies. Now, he’s probably bored with his vanilla life, feeling invisible in the big city, and looking to reclaim a position of power.”
“By becoming a pastor?” she asked incredulously.
“Of the church his parents control? Yeah. Absolutely.” He huffed. “Besides, it’s a surefire way to get invited to weddings.”
“And funerals,” she said.
“Indeed,” she agreed.
Mike slipped back into the make-believe world of movie romance, which was now, predictably, on the rocks, and Marissa returned to the world of exaggerated truth through her friends’ social media posts. Come midnight, her newsfeed would likely transform into an embarrassing, unkempt mess of drunken tragedy to be hastily untagged and deleted by morning, but the night was young enough the smiling faces she scrolled past were still perfectly filtered and mostly sober.
Many of the pictures had been taken at Captain Jack’s. They had a DJ for the night, drink specials and giveaways. If she’d wanted, she could have called the manager and asked for a shift. New Year’s Eve could be a huge money-maker, with the right crowd, but even the thought of picking up that tray again raised her blood pressure and roused her anger. Seven years of playing coy or teasing easy to drunken assholes with grabby hands and snarky girlfriends who didn’t know how to tip had burned her out. She wasn’t ready to go down that rabbit hole again.
What she really wanted was to step into a casual get-together like the one in the pictures Aria had posted from Chelsea Lake. Close friends enjoying good conversation in a lush living room alight with a warm fire crackling in the hearth, champagne on ice, and tray after tray of Pinterest-perfect appetizers. Aria positively glowed in her pregnancy. In every picture that captured Jimmy, he sat mesmerized, cradling Dan and Stacy’s newborn baby. The phantom ache throbbed from deep in her belly, crying out from her broken soul. Hurriedly, she moved on.
Scrolling the feed, she found more of the same, increasingly drunker friends and acquaintances living it up at the same old bars. A handful had stayed home to ring in the new year with their husband or wife, their young children. Quite a few were at a party in some guy’s garage, which looked like a hell of a good time. For a moment, Marissa was tempted to finish dressing and head out into the frigid night to be warmed by an excess of tequila shots and a steamy, meaningless hookup, but then Bella rested her chin on Marissa’s leg. With doe eyes, the dog implored Marissa to scratch her ears, and Marissa complied.
Bella’s ears were like velvet to the touch as Marissa stroked them with her thumb and let them play through her fingers, gently twirling and scrunching. Bella’s eyes rolled back as she groaned deeply in contentment. The dog loved nothing more than an ear massage or a nose nuzzle, shoulder rubs and butt scratches, car rides and stolen treats. As Marissa patted the sofa cushion beside her, Bella jumped at the invitation to snuggle in alongside her and wriggled her cold nose under the warmth of Marissa’s arm, sighing in contentment.
Marissa unclasped Bella’s collar, slipped it off her neck, then massaged the dog’s fur. Giggling, she sang, “Bella’s naked. Naked, naked, naked.”
Mike snorted a laugh. “Dork.”
Bella shot her owner a jovial glance then scooted and scooched, rolling onto her back, and nudged Marissa for a belly rub. The shift caused her collar to slip from Marissa lap and fall to the floor with a musical jangle of the dog tags. Marissa leaned down to pick it up and brushed her thumb over the engraving of the heart-shaped rabies tag, which read, “Rabies Vacc, Hart Veterinary Clinic, Allman Falls NE.”
“Do you like Dr. Hart?” Marissa asked.
Mike shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. I mean, he’s cheap.”
“That’s how you choose your veterinarian? By how much he charges?”
“No,” Mike said defensively. “He’s a nice guy. He’s good to Bella. But almost every vet I’ve ever met is really nice and good with animals. And really expensive. Doc Hart is a farm guy with a clinic, not some frou-frou puppy parlor. He’s cheap and efficient.”
“The same way you like your women?” Marissa asked with a teasing wink, which made Mike snort again with laughter.
Marissa patted Bella on the belly then picked up her cellphone and googled Dr. Alex Hart’s clinic. He didn’t have a website or any kind of social media presence, just a business landing page that listed clinic hours and an after-hours emergency phone number. He had received a half-dozen 5-star reviews in as many years, typical for a small-town business.
The doctor himself had a personal profile which Marissa lightly stalked before clicking the ‘Add Friend’ button. A few anxious minutes passed before she received notification he had accepted.
A heartbeat later, a new message popped up.
Her heart fluttered and she giggled aloud when she read, “Queen Nala awaits your arrival. 7:00 am sharp. Bring coffee.”