by Kayla Xu
Even if I lived to a hundred, I don’t think I’d ever get used to waking up in the morning and finding new patches of marred flesh on my body.
It took five, agonizing minutes to sit up. Another ten to get out of bed and stand. My body didn’t care how slowly I moved; I still flinched from the pain.
Habitually, I limped over to scrutinized the marks on my body in a floor-length mirror, a mirror I had bought especially for that purpose. Almost like I was masochistic.
My entire body was covered in blemishes I had begun adapting to seeing with my naked reflection. They ranged from the size of a nail to the line that ran across my torso, nicking the underside of my breast. Memorizing which of the scars were older was unnecessary; new ones were always red and raw.
That morning I had two.
A short scar was added to the marks on my calf. The day before, I had earned a two-dollar raise at the bookstore I worked at.
I wouldn’t’ve noticed the second one on the back of my neck if it hadn’t stung like it did. The last night, I had gotten a second job to work a night-shift at a fast-food restaurant.
I blinked back the tears in my eyes.
I needed those jobs. I barely had enough for rent and had resorted to eating deli sandwiches every other day. The scars were worth the money.
Foolishly, I’d hoped getting a job wouldn’t’ve been enough for them to form. I underestimated how much I wanted another paycheck, how happy it made me. Twenty-four years I spent in this life and I still didn’t know why I only scarred after good things happened. But I knew enough to know how I had to lead my life if I didn’t want to be disfigured by thirty.
They say scars meant you survived something that tried to hurt you. To me, all they did was remind me of how backwards my entire existence was. My scars were proof of the dozens of times I tried to lead a normal life, one full of the good things the world could offer. They reminded me that I couldn’t.
I pulled on a pair of jeans and a turtleneck sweatshirt, careful to not irritate the new scars. I welcomed the colder months of the year; I could walk around outside without stares for wearing clothes that would cover up my entire body. The scars on my face I covered with concealer before slipping on a pair of gloves.
Looking in the mirror, I felt my body relax. With my hair down and my attire, no one would’ve noticed any of the scars. I couldn’t afford to be happy, but I could be logically satisfied.
I glanced at the wall calendar to the left of the mirror.
It was Wednesday.
The satisfaction drained away.
He always went to the bookstore on Wednesdays.
The feeling of terrified anticipation washed over me, as it always did at the thought of him.
The first time I had seen him, I had stared for a good minute. He had one of those faces you just couldn’t forget, with piercing eyes and sharp features. He had a slight ego, but as I watched him charm the employees of the bookstore with a single grin, I couldn’t help my growing infatuation.
I wasn’t surprised when I discovered a new scar scratched along my collarbone the next morning.
After that day, he was unavoidable.
I’d hoped that the first time I saw him would’ve been the last, but that wasn’t the case. A few months later, Ian Joster was responsible for thirty-one of the scars on my body. And when I spotted him walking into Avid Books as I restocked the science-fiction shelves, I knew the thirty-second would be appearing the next morning.
I managed not to glance up as he walked past me toward the store’s small café. However, drowning out his voice was much more difficult.
“Hey, Maggie,” he greeted the barista.
I could hear the blush in Maggie’s voice as she responded, “Hi, Ian. What can I get you?”
While he placed his order for a coffee, I finished stocking the science-fiction section and wheeled the metal cart of books to the biographies, where his voice faded into the background.
It wasn’t much help; subconsciously, I still strained to hear him…
Swallowing thickly, I silently scolded myself. Seeking his presence was going to increase the length and the pain of the scars I’d get because of him.
I could’ve quit my job at the bookstore. I’d never have to see him again if I did. But it wouldn’t’ve been worth it. My routine decreased the number of scars I got. I’d already ruined it by getting the job at the restaurant. If that hadn’t been necessary, I wouldn’t’ve applied to start with. If I had quit everything and started over… I didn’t want to think about the backlash that would’ve had.
I’d still seek him out regardless.
Attempting to turn my attention back to my job, I pulled a book out of the cart and searched for its place on the shelf.
“Excuse me, can you help me?”
My breath caught in my throat as my entire body froze.
My heart beat furiously.
“Um,” Ian said after a moment, sounding unsure when I hadn’t responded, “you work here, right?”
I regained enough control to nod. My eyes locked on the bookshelf, but couldn’t focus on anything. His voice and proximity were too distracting.
“Can you help me then?” he repeated.
The fact that he was talking to me was too much.
The scar was going to hurt like hell.
“If you’re busy,” Ian said, “I can find someone-.”
I’d spoken before I’d realized it. Suddenly, I was standing, but not looking up.
“No?” Ian echoed.
I was nodding. “I-I can help you. What are you looking for…?”
I didn’t remember moving. One second I was staring at the stitching in his sneakers; the next, I was looking into his hazel eyes, unable to tear my own away.
I hadn’t realized he had spoken until an expectant look spread across his face.
“Huh?” I blinked.
My knees went weak when he smiled.
“His Struggle by J. Koffer?” he asked. “It’s a biography.”
It took a moment for my brain to catch up.
“Uh, w-well,” I stutter, “it’ll be… um…” I crouched back down to reach the K books on the bottom shelf. Ian knelt beside me.
His presence was dizzying.
When I spotted the book, I immediately pulled it off the shelf and stood up, increasing the distance between us, both missing and fearing how close we’d been.
“H-Here,” I said, fumbling as I held the book out for him.
He looked up, grinning. I glanced away.
Standing up, he took the book.
“Thanks…” He trailed off.
He wanted my name.
I ignored his silent question.
“You’re welcome,” I muttered.
His grin wavered.
Suddenly I wanted to leave the situation as quickly as possible. Turning away, I reached into the book cart, once again restocking the shelves.
He was still there.
“Name’s Ian. What’s yours?”
I didn’t respond.
When I finished restocking, he was gone.
The brief conversation we had stuck with me for the rest of the week. It was all I could think of while at the bookstore. It haunted my thoughts while I manned the drive-thru. And as I laid in bed trying to sleep, it took over my mind.
“Name’s Ian. What’s yours?”
I was overthinking it. For the whole week, my thoughts were stuck in a vicious cycle, questioning why he tried to start a conversation, why he smiled at me, why I was dreading and impatient for sleep to swallow and thrust me into another Wednesday.
Logically, I couldn’t go back. Not after that. The scar I got from him that week was one of the most painful I had had in a long time.
The scars were going to interfere with my life. I’d known forever. They drove away my family, my friends. No matter what I did, they were there, haunting me.
No matter what I did…
My breath caught in my throat.
They were always going to be there. Nothing I could do was going to change that. They were always going to control my life.
But maybe how they did could be up to me.
My mind was suddenly going a mile a minute.
I viewed my scars as mistakes. But those mistakes, for the briefest of moments, made me happy. The reason that happiness never lasted was because I never let it. I was so scared, so terrified of the pain they caused, that I didn’t stop to think that maybe, just maybe, it could’ve been worth it.
Maybe the scars didn’t need to be a disability.
The next Wednesday, I put that thought to the test.
“My name’s Janine.”