A soul adrift, lost at sea,
Yearning for a sense of grace,
But finds only discord and disarray,
In this world, so out of place.
Where once there was poise and elegance,
Now there's only crudeness and haste,
A world that's lost its sense of beauty,
And leaves the heart and soul disgraced.
Oh, how this troubled soul longs for,
The sight of a gentle touch,
A word of kindness, a thoughtful act,
To restore what's lost so much.
But in this world of chaos and noise,
Grace seems a distant dream,
And this troubled heart must find a way,
To weather life's turbulent stream.
Yet still the hope remains alive,
That someday grace will return,
And with it, peace and harmony,
And the heart's desire, finally earned.
“Save us, Grace. Please.” The young woman is paralyzed in a lucid nightmare, aware of her thoughts, coaxing herself to act upon them. She stands alone in front of her bathroom mirror, speaking to herself, desperate for a jolt. “C’mon Grace, you can do it.” Before it comes, she is consumed by her subconscious. Her surroundings recede in color dulling into a drab palate of grays. Black glossy tiles, embedded with silver flake, crumble into a floor of loose and grainy midnight beads. Charred, slender willow trees rumble from the earth, growing, towering above her. Her heart beats furiously, like the fluttering wings of an injured bird. Her feet sink deeper into the terrain, consumed by darkness. A moon lies beyond the trees, just crossing over the horizon, glowing blindingly, promising absolution. If only she could reach it. If she could navigate over the torn paper landscape ahead of her. Layers of rolling hills in diminishing shades of black that lie upon one another, like the scenery of a puppet show. She, the marionette, yearns to move but struggles to seize control.
Grace looks down upon a figure that is and is not hers. She is barely clothed in torn rags that clutch to her body. Her skin is pale and translucent, white as the surface of the moon. Upon her chest rests a blood red stone. A spirit, encased in a gold heart-shaped setting on the end of a thin chain, created from fired ruby glass and the ashes of her mother. It throbs with a scorching heat, searing her skin. If she could only lift her heavy feet from the swallowing land, she would be able to free herself from this living hallucination. Her frantic arms reach towards the horizon, but are beaten away by shadowy branches. She draws back fair hands and limbs covered in bloody crimson welts. The air smells moist, like an oncoming storm. A fog emerges, gentle at first. Thin clouds arise from behind the hills that double, then triple in heaviness. Menacingly, they approach, surrounding her in acrid smoke. The membranes of her nose become enraged, her lungs engorged. Deliberately being suffocated. Tears pool in her eyes. Salt burns dry corneas. The echo of her pounding heart thuds behind her ears like ancient war drums. With every slowing beat, each weakening pulse, her eyelids feel heavier, the scalding torment in her chest intensifying. Grace hears footsteps approaching from behind, small steps that crunch in the decaying earth. Short, rapid breaths are upon her.
The voice she hears is childish and soft, “I found you,” as is the touch along her bare thigh. Faith, the youngest of the two children Grace is nanny to, has ventured her way from the main house, through the backyard, into the guest home, and into Grace’s bathroom. Her touch is spell-breaking. The fog clears, color reemerges like a drop of watercolor on a fresh canvas, soaking each fiber. Her opulent ensuite bathroom returns: marble vanity, glass framed rain shower, glittering black tiles under her feet that make her feel like she is floating in space.
Faith pinches the loose band of skin around Grace’s stomach, the stubborn paunch she’s gained these months after her mother passed away. “Hey. Stop that. Get out of here, I’m not dressed!” Grace covers her bare breasts with one arm, a polite but trifling gesture. She has been Faith’s nanny since she was born, they share mother-daughter privacy privileges. Grace shoos away the tiny hand, mostly in jest, partly embarrassed, her cheeks flush with rushing blood and prickly heat. Grace is a huskier version of herself, padded with a thin layer of weight, armor she has donned as protection from the mourning onslaught. The ash-blonde, green-eyed cherub turns and tucks her diaper, pity pats back across the floor, barefoot, squeaking like a hungry baby bird.
Grace is positioned on her tiptoes, leaning against the vanity, her fine black hair tied up in a loose bun. Wisps of steam float by, her flesh is anointed by warm water, skin hydrous and plump, pale with a tinge of yellow like heavy cream. Her bare stomach rests against the edge of the marble counter. Grace pinches the lace waistband of her satin underwear a bit higher, providing herself a millimeter’s worth of relief. The bathroom is warm from her shower, the fixtures still cold from a winter’s night, though the sun is already hours over the horizon. She remembers applying eyelashes across her almond lids before drifting away, before the color drained from the room, just before her second heart started beating. Since her mother passed, Grace finds herself drifting between worlds more often, exploring her unconscious.
She bats her eyes open and closed, the carnivorous lashes stick in place, subdued but deadly. In the mirror, her eyes are brilliant. Hazel with metallic yellow rings. When the creature is stirred, her eyes change. The gold in her irises liquifies, melts and spreads, overtaking soft gray. Grace is unsatisfied with her reflection. Annoyed. She can see what the camera will capture if she is in the background of any candid photos. An unstill Grace, caught between two frames, blurred. It cannot be so active during a public event. The creature can only be seen by those it favors, but when it is hyperactive, modern technology can slightly unveil the unbelievable.
“Can you stop playing around. Go away. Go play with Faith!” she pleads. Obedient most times, and fond of the young child, it climbs out of the heart-shaped stone, and jaunts across the floor.
Grace follows two sets of footprints through frosty, dew-sodden grass to the main house. Her eyes and nose are ambushed by the acidic scents of citrus-scented cleaner and a fresh-cut lawn. A pungent effervescence. Both the gardeners and the party rental company have arrived earlier this morning. Grace maneuvers through an obstacled course of folding chairs and tables on her way to the rear of the home. She enters through the glass doors. With her chin down, she addresses the mother, “Good morning, Mrs. Marshall.” Karen Marshall is at the kitchen island, looking into the yard. She checks the hanging clock on the far wall before acknowledging Grace. Through a thin-lipped smile, she replies “Good morning.” She waves a free hand, like a conductor mid-concerto, instructing Grace to finish opening the folding glass doors that convert the patio into an extended living room.
Karen is in between sips of her coffee alternative, a blend of cacao, chai, and cordyceps. A concoction that she tries to convince anyone willing to listen tastes the same as coffee. Something Grace unwisely confided in Faith tastes “Ca-cawful.” They both eye the clear glass awkwardly. “I need you to clean up all the grass Faith tracked in before guests arrive.”
“Yes, Mrs. Marshall.” Grace finishes unfolding the patio doors, flushing the home with crisp biting air. After some time, she slides the dust mat with Faith’s toddler Crocs to the side of the cement landing.
“I told her not to go out there. Then I told her 'put those on.' She just doesn’t listen to me.”
Grace flexes an appeasing smile for Mrs. Marshall, though it scarcely shows through her flat and unremarkable features. She has a face like a porcelain geisha mask – smooth, unblemished, with a dull chalky glow and vacant of emotion. Her hair, freed from the morning bun, is long and shining, like filaments of black velvet. A panther’s coat to match her gilded eyes.
The Marshall household will celebrate Sarah’s eighth birthday today. She is five years older than Faith. Grace’s mother was the previous nanny until she became ill. Knowing Karen was pregnant again, Grace’s mother insisted on retiring. She could not bear to become attached to another child she would not live to see grow up. The Marshalls had been familiar with Grace since she was fourteen, the quiet daughter who followed behind her mother at Sarah’s parties, helping her clean up, munching on expensive catering. They welcomed the changing of the guardian.
“How are you doing Grace?” Mr. Marshall’s voice rails down the hallway and out the open doors, like an incoming train. He is the reason she wears makeup regularly, and eyelashes on special occasions. She is not attracted to him, and believes the opposite cannot be true, but she knows that he has an eye for polished standards. Poignant counsel from her mother. Mrs. Marshall is cinched up in a sports bra that exposes the upper half of her toned stomach and pants that complement her curves. She twirls a giddy pirouette when she hears the sound of her husband’s voice.
“Yay, you’re up! I’m going to the gym before the party.” Karen slides in front of him before he can enter the kitchen, runs a manicured nail along the inside of his thigh on to his stomach, and kisses him on the lips. Before leaving, she turns back, “The Grace, grass. Ugh. The grass. Grace.” Mr. Marshall and Grace share a muted laugh. Despite her Dysport paralyzed face, Karen’s annoyance prevails. Her glare moves from Grace to the guest house, a place she’s been eying since Grace’s mother passed. The perfect space for a home gym.
Karen resisted having Grace’s ill mother in the home, irrationally afraid to go near her as though she was covered in legions and boils. Mr. Marshall insisted that Grace’s mother stay on the property, benevolently selfish, assuring Grace would always be close. Now that her mother was gone, Grace could take the spare bedroom, a move Grace dreaded. At the park, with other live-in caretakers, she has heard whispers from damaged souls, warnings of what can happen in Beverly Hills homes, at parties, after parties. The forty feet of Kentucky Bluegrass between the guest house and theirs is crucial, for all of them.
“I’m OK,” Grace lies, running a fingertip along the pendant hanging from her neck. Mrs. Marshall takes notice as she exits, feeling possessive of the piece. Grace takes notice of her interest, quickly turning her eyes to the floor. The Marshalls paid one thousand dollars to have Grace’s mother cremated and another thousand to have the ashes formed into the stone. For them, an insignificant amount, worth each cent to not be bothered with a gap in childcare. For Grace, the only option to contain her mother. To keep the creature close, under her thumb. Grace edges by Mr. Marshall to gather a bottle of organic cleaning solvent and reusable rags from under the sink.
“That’s good to hear. We’re going to miss her today. This will be the first birthday party of the kids that Rose won’t be at.” Hearing her mother’s name catches Grace unprepared, like she is caught in rain under a clear sky.
What did Mr. Marshall miss more, her stout and sweet mother or the hand-wrapped, freshly fried egg rolls, dipped in chili sauce? Grace thought she could hear the saliva collecting in his mouth, washing over his incisors, slurring his words. Bending down to clean up Faith’s trail, she answers, “I know.” She thinks, What the fuck do I even say to that? She follows with, “I’m sorry” – her go-to response in binds of discomfort, a plea to be set free.
Mr. Marshall steps out from behind the island. Past his legs, Grace can see Faith in the hallway, dancing in a circle with her arms extended, “…we all fall down…” She collapses in a heap. The haunting eyes of a sallow black dwarf on its tiptoes peer over Faith’s blonde curls, longing to pass judgment on Mr. Marshall. Grace curtly shakes her head, but the creature scurries forward. In a blink, the dwarf is behind Mr. Marshall’s leg, dragging spindly fingers and sharp yellowed nails down his sweatpants, unraveling threads. Worry floods Grace’s senses, her skin burns, welts rise from the heat. Her mouth is sucked dry of any moisture. Mr. Marshall seems unbothered until Faith crashes into his other leg. He looks down smiling, cooing at his youngest child. The dwarf opens its mouth, revealing a cavernous black hole lined with shoddy shards of teeth, spotted brown gums, and a mottled tongue. Grace can hear it chittering, taking over her mind, talking over thoughts, prompting her. Through a mouth full of cotton, she manages a few withered words, “I’m so sorry, Mr. Marshall.”
“Stop apologizing. What are you sorry for?” The voice Grace hears is not that of Mr. Marshall. It is the stern scolding tones of her mother in Tagalog. Rose is speaking in her delightfully abrupt Filipino tongue, in an avalanche of additional syllables, heavily enunciating short vowels.
“I don’t know, Mom. I don’t remember. I’m sorry.”
“Ha! Again!” Rose affectionately taunts her daughter. She delivers a four-finger pop to the crown of Grace’s head.
Grace rubs the sting out of her scalp. She is transported from the tile kitchen floor to the cabin of their rusted tan Subaru. Above folded-down rear seats in the hull of the old station wagon, long wooden tables and brown metal chairs bounce and bang into one another. The two are driving home after a church function. Rose is here and there, lost in thought, concentrating on the road, then staring aimlessly. Grace forges an attempt to root out the cause. “Mom, what happened with Tita?” She holds her breath, unsure what her mother will say about her auntie.
A chance for Grace to escape, yet she presses forward. Teen spirit. “Tita Ernestine. I saw you two after, while I was packing the car. You looked… mad.” A rare sight. Church gatherings were where Rose was herself. She applied powder and blush, had Grace dye and curl her hair, adorned her wrists and neck with trinkets, and slipped on her best bargain store dress. Glittery and shining. Rose fluttered between booths, linking them with her infectious laughter, dancing along a sparkling path. Her smile glowed warmer than the lanterns strung over the uneven, gouged blacktop.
The leather wrap on the steering wheel squeaked from her tightening grip. “She is not your Tita. She is a, uhhh, yung ano, uhhh …a bruha.”
“Oh!? OK.” Bruha, Grace’s cue to abort. In Filipino culture, the nomenclature of auntie and uncle is loosely assigned, shared as a sign of respect, not necessitating relation by blood, and for Auntie Ernestine, that relationship had been severed. Grace trained her stare forward and stretched for the radio, wishful that 70’s soft rock could temper the moment. Rose preempted the strike, reaching the knob first. Instead, she turned the volume down, hushing the low buoyant vocals of Karen Carpenter’s intro to We’ve Only Just Begun.
“Grasya,” Rose’s word for her, the Filipino word for blessing, “I did something tonight I shouldn’t have. I cursed that woman.” Rose’s eyes became glassy, reflecting the headlights of an oncoming car. “She is too much. Always taking more than she is supposed to, cutting the line, being late. And always I am the one apologizing for her, to her, sorry this, sorry that, you go first, I’ll wait. Ay!” Rose regurgitated a monologue she’d been rehearsing since they left the church, if not longer. The car veered left into the center of the road, tires bumped against raised pavement markers, the Subaru became alive with a thumping heart. The word cursed was like a detonation, like they had driven over a landmine. It vacuumed the breathable air from the cabin, deafened Grace’s senses, allowing only for the muffled, defeated words of Rose’s continued confession, and Richard Carpenter’s attempt to keep the mood light, harmonizing with his sister, “… so much of life aheeeead.” With a gentle hand, Grace eased the vehicle back into the lane.
“Tonight, I saw her kissing your Tito Paul.” Not for the first time, Auntie Ernestine attempted an invasion of another woman’s marriage, trumpeting a forward march, burning land, only to plunder, pillage, and leave lifeless bodies in her wake. “When I told her she needs to stop, she said I was crazy. I didn’t know what I was talking about.” Rose pried a hand away from the wheel to clear her tears. “She won’t stop being that way. I had to. It had to.” And with a final deflated breath, she accepted responsibility. “I couldn’t stop it.”
The cabin air soured, smelling of spoiled rice. The weight of the creature was like a small potted plant in Grace’s lap. It stared up at her with a neatly manicured beard, deep sallow red-rimmed eyes, aged charcoal skin, and a large tattered burgundy hat, hanging off the back off its round shiny head. It sat with its legs crossed, dressed in denim overalls, disappearing and reappearing with every street light that zipped by. It contended for Grace’s affection, flashing a new jocular grimace, pulled from its wiry lips, with each reemergence. Rose’s duende. A mythical creature born from the earth, passed on to her from her father, assigned with her protection. Grace jerked backwards, wanting to escape to the rear bench. The creature thinned its eyes, straightened its playful grin. Restrained and afraid, Grace pressed deep into her own seat. Yellow foam pushed forth from widening cracks.
“Ay! Stop that. Act normal.” Rose’s voice was sharp and cold and threatening, like icy air before a blizzard. Black dwarfs are playful creatures, fond of young children but temperamental. Capable of excruciating curses. Act Normal. Grace was reminded of fairy tales and anecdotes Rose had recited, stories she had dismissed as wild and fantastic. They came rushing back, a deliberate history written in her, by her mother, for this moment. Act Normal. Grace conjured a child’s curiosity to overcome reality, allowed deep historic, familial bonds to weave their way into a new generation. During the rest of the drive home, Grace developed a clingy fondness for the creature, poking it in the flaps of its belly, coaxing a hyena’s giggle from it. She adjusted and readjusted the hat, pulling it down over its eyes, playing peek-a-boo. She scratched its beard, strumming soft murmurs from its throat like a hollow instrument.
Inside of their Glendale apartment, Grace and Rose huddled over a small table by the kitchen under dim fluorescent light. The creature had been seduced to sleep by a lullaby from Grace’s mother. “Does it speak?” Grace asked, wondering why she had not shared any words with the creature over the drive. No semblance of dialogue, only sounds – its high pitched and off beat, hers small and childlike.
“Only two words, Grasya. Pasensiya Na.” The creature was trusted to watch over Rose, to protect her, but living in a world absent of grace, where robust humans so willingly avoid generosity of spirit and action. They enraged the creature, encouraged it to evil. Entrusting upon itself the duty of justice, it became more concerned with retribution and punishment for those who abused Rose’s kindness. “Those words are a spell, a curse, born from tribal magic. A trick that it thinks spares us guilt. There are no words in our language that mean I’m sorry. Not like the Americans.” Rose sounded it out for Grace, pa-sen-si-ya na. “It means forget your anger. It thinks it is clever,” she finished with a dismissive eyebrow over a weary face.
Rose spoke them to Ernestine, the cursed words, in the church by the alter when she could no longer resist the creature’s influence. As the two argued, it frantically bounced about, on pillars, through the aisles, dishonoring signs of the cross. With each emblazoned word Ernestine spoke, it became giddier with anticipation. Hyperactive, excited to dissolve Rose of her empathy. It beratingly chirped in Rose’s ear like a herd of wrens, rattling an alarm. Blood swarmed over her heart, thick and viscous. Her fuse reached its end, the spark flickering away, the explosion loosed. “Ay! OK. OK. Grace is waiting,” she paused, harrowed by the creature, “Pasensiya-Na.”
As the final syllable slipped off of Rose’s lips, her eyelids thudded closed, her heart did not beat. In that blink of her eyes, lights dimmed, sound died in clay tiles, burgeoning flames of altar candles swirled and extinguished. The dwarf leapt merrily, skipping along the tops of the pews. After sufficiently celebrating its victory, it edged closer, taking a seat on Ernestine’s shoulder, an evil grin of ruddy teeth stretched across its face. It whispered an incantation only it could hear and inflicted its spell. Rose watched as a weight lifted from her and forced itself on to Ernestine, like a gust of choking smoke. Ernestine’s skin crystallized, tightening over her high-angled cheeks, becoming frail and colorless. Blue veins snaked their way across the fragile surface, like spidering cracks in thin glass. Her eyes became dull, muddy pools in an arbor of green eyeshadow. The roots of her hair grayed, spindling away from her scalp. Ernestine’s color returned, her eyes soft and accepting of Rose’s apology, unaware of the curse woven into place.
Throughout the night, Grace listened to Rose sob into her pillow, begging for forgiveness.
Uncontrollable, shuddering inhales. Loud bellowing cries. Repeated on end, over and over. Sarah is not the center of attention at the Marshall household, but she is the most fragile. When fruit punch spilled on her dress, it was as though a dog whistle sounded for the other four members of the family, even tiny Faith rushed to Sarah’s aid. The three adults lobbed solutions, all of which required Grace to come to her rescue.
In Sarah’s upstairs bedroom, Grace runs a hand up and down her back, calming her, kneading the knots from her throat. “I’ll get it out. Don’t worry. Everything is going to be OK,” Grace assures Sarah. “Just stay right here, I’ll take the dress and get it as good as new. I promise.” Grace lifts Sarah’s face in her hands, bringing their chins even. “Now, show me your beautiful eyes. Come on, it’s your birthday! You can’t cry on your birthday.” Sarah’s eyes are like bottled blue lightning. Grace leaves her with a faint mark of red lipstick on the girl's cheek.
On her way down, the doorbell rings. Karen flies by Grace upwards on the stairs, the pinching smell of salt and sweat trailing close behind. “Grace, that’s my sister. I still need to shower and get ready, could you let her in?” Karen Marshall requires a full face of makeup and a cocktail, maybe two, to stomach her sibling. Grace will make sure to ready a gin drink for her before she comes back up.
“Yes, Mrs. Marshall.”
“Oh my God! What happened?” Lisa Engel, Karen’s older sister by a year, is dressed in the highest of heels and a bright coral bodysuit, vacuum sealed to her newly, surgically enhanced body. She stands in the foyer, having let herself in. Her makeup is flawless, her undereye concealer applied heavily. She fails to acknowledge Grace as she snatches Sarah’s dress from her hands. “Are you going to be able to get this out before the party?”
“I’ll do my best. How are you, Mrs. Engel?” Lisa Engel is fresh off of a three-year marriage with a Netflix celebrity, and happy to explain what happened and how she is coping. Grace manages to snake the dress from her clutches and disappear in the other direction before the woman can get going. Exit stage left.
In the guest house, Grace sets Sarah’s size 8, sleeveless dress, stained bright red from neck to waist, on her comforter. From under her bed, she slides out a long, flat cardboard box. Inside, she retrieves a package folded in white tissue paper. She removes the price tag from an identical pink chiffon dress and switches the two, wrapping the stained one into the tissue and placing it back into the box. More poignant advice from Rose, “Sarah is clumsy, ah. Birthdays and recitals, especially. It is good to have a backup.” Thanks Mom.
“Oh my God!” Lisa’s voice is piercing. She is multiple decibels louder than any of the additional guests that have arrived, drawing a horde of unwanted attention towards Grace. “How did you even? This is why they never let you out of their sight.” She hurls an evil eye towards her own nanny on the couch, Katie, who is bouncing her one-year-old on her knee. Katie redirects the eye back at Grace with the addition of a nanny-to-nanny scowl. Grace, desperate to escape the crossfire, finishes squeezing a lime into a tall glass of Hendricks gin and tonic water, then hustles away with dress and drink in hand.
“You’re a life saver, Grace!” Mr. Marshall is coming down the stairs, his first appearance at the party, “Hugh, how are you buddy?” He cuts through the crowd, carving a path in the direction of Hugh Stavenow, his client. Also, Lisa Engel’s ex-husband. Also, Grace’s heartthrob. Grace, unsure if he’d been invited, now understands Lisa’s extreme body adjustments, the professional makeup job, and the bright, inappropriate outfit. Mr. Marshall apologizes to Lisa with an “it’s just business” shoulder shrug on his way through the living room. He takes a detour from his path to pour two Macallan 12 Sherry Oak bourbons. Neat.
Hugh Stavenow is the leading male actor in a critically acclaimed, moderately popular streamed television show. His first Emmy sits in the Marshall’s trophy case, a gift to the agent that started his career, after he won a second. Grace fought back a throbbing desire to return to the kitchen for a closer experience of him, to circle behind and sniff in his enchanting essence. She imagines he smells like he has been brewed from a cauldron of whiskey and gunpowder. On screen, his skin is rich and unblemished like full grain leather, tanned brown, the color of milk chocolate. Hugh acknowledges Mr. Marshall while making his way to his son to gather him from the nanny. He approaches her with outstretched arms and a convincing grin. The nanny looks to Lisa for instruction, awaiting orders. Lisa shrugs, clinks ice around an empty glass, and dismisses the annoyance, turning in the direction of the liquor cart.
Hugh picks up his son like it is his first time seeing him. He gazes up on him, his eyes wide, smile bright, taking in all the nuances of his baby face, the slight changes that have developed since the last time they’ve seen each other. The baby responds in kind, poking at Hugh’s elegant facial structure, running stubby fingers along bushy brows, hiccuping giggles. Hugh steadies his son on his forearm, wrapping him around his side. Grace admires from afar, picturing his stomach strained under his shirt. Eternally grateful for Under the Sun episodes, where obliging writers wrote shirtless scenes for Hugh. She knows his abs and obliques are like smooth stones in a rippling river. The rest of the day, Hugh bounces around the party engaged in boisterous conversation with every party-goer that desires a chance at his ear, his son on his hip for every word.
“Grace, I need another drink.” Lisa’s heels are too tall to balance her new proportions any longer. She collapses into a folding chair and reaches down to unbuckle herself from the wobbly ride. “Fuck these shoes. And fuck him!” The rest of the guests are inside, gathered around a sprinkle-covered, strawberry birthday cake for Sarah. She is beaming in her spotless party dress and a tasteful tiara. On one side of the table are the adults, phones drawn, jockeying for position to get the perfect picture for their social media. Proof they were invited to Sarah Marshall’s birthday party. On the other side, Sarah is crowded by the few children still left in attendance, those whose parents have announced to Karen that they will be leaving soon, multiple times.
“Oh please, just stay a little longer. We are going to do the cake soon,” Karen begs, more intent on freshening cocktails than lighting candles. Off key, and off rhythm, the group finally begins to serenade Sarah. Some sing Faith’s name in place of Sarah’s.
Lisa asks again, “Grace, could you get me another drink. Now.”
“Oh, yes, Ms. Engel. Right away.” Grace puts down a heavy-duty trash bag brimming with plastic bottles, soda cans, paper plates, and sullied tablecloths. On her way in, she catches the tail end of the song and pauses long enough to finish singing it with the group, flashing Sarah a heart formed from her fingers. Sarah blows a kiss back and returns her attention to the cake and Faith, whose eyes have grown bigger than her head. Sarah slides a finger along the cream cheese frosting, and smears it across Faith’s nose. The two whirl together in the enchantment of sisterhood.
“He needs to sleep.” Barefoot Lisa and her social shuttlecock ex-husband have reached their inevitable collision. The two are out in front of the Marshall’s home, their argument loud enough for neighbors and stragglers at the party to hear. The Marshall’s home is large, but not large enough to keep the two separated, to deny their gravitational pull. Though the hour is not late, most of the guests have departed, all of the children are gone, and sleep is the only excuse Lisa can find to sensibly bring the Hugh Stavenow and Baby parade to an end.
Lisa is exasperated. “If I knew you were coming and you were going to be all over him, I would have given Katie the day off.” Katie, the nanny from the couch, stands within shouting distance by the curb, waiting for an Uber, the head of the baby tucked into her neck, her name purposefully spoken with enough emphasis to be included in their spat.
“Come off it, Lisa!” Hugh’s voice explodes through the unpopulated cul-de-sac, rattling off car windows. He is more animated than he has been at any point today. The combination of Lisa Engel and multiple fingers of bourbon have chipped away his model actor, publicist-approved persona. “You just hate seeing me with him. Let Katie go, I’ll bring my boy home.”
“You’re insane! You drank more than I did.” By her count, Hugh is at six drinks, not counting the one he is waving around. He carries himself like he’s only had a few, the benefit of a six-foot, muscular physique and a scotch-soaked liver.
“What, are you counting how many drinks I’ve had? We aren’t together anymore, Lisa. You can’t control every little thing I do.”
“Fuck, I hate you. You’re such a fucking phony. Why don’t you go home. No one wants you here.”
“Me? No one wants me here? I’ve talked to everyone in there, and they love me. I am Hugh Stavenow. You’re the one making everyone feel awkward. What are you even wearing?” In truth, Hugh has been stealing piggish glances at Lisa throughout the day, yearning for a moment alone with her. A moment unlike this. Perhaps a chance encounter of the two of them in a secluded bathroom. The physical attraction between the two is undeniable. Inappropriate yes, but undeniably delectable. He has imagined every inch of her, hungering for her. Each additional Macallan making him bolder, more dismissive of their tumultuous history, more aware of his carnal desire to conquer her again. Allowing his eyes to linger longer, so she can interpret them for their truth. Even now, he cannot help but stare.
Creeping tires over the empty street interrupt the hanging silence. A slow, burgundy Honda circles the neighborhood. It approaches hesitantly. The driver buzzes down his window. “Um, Lisa?”
Elated with the driver’s impeccable timing, Lisa leaves Hugh slack jawed, sensing his desire, dismissive of his voracious eyes. “Yes, I’m Lisa.” She spins off, switching her hips. “Come on Katie, we’re leaving now.” Hugh is left standing in the driveway, watching her walk away. Even without the high heels that prop her round curves into place, he finds himself mesmerized by her gait, spun up into a frenzy. Lisa has done what she always does. Hugh needs a moment. He slips back into the house and ducks into the downstairs bathroom by the entry way.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone was in here. I saw the light was on but the handle wasn’t locked.”
Grace is face to face with Hugh, shining star of Under the Sun, Stavenow. She cannot believe it. He is more handsome in person than he is retouched across her 42” television. He smells different than she imagined, cleaner, less rugged, like a pine forest, pure and bracing. His scent rushes over her. His eyes are penetrating, paralyzing. She is struck by the star into silence, desperate to get a word out. Say something Grace, she can hear herself think, but is unable to act.
Accustomed to the dominant role, familiar with this muted reaction to his presence, Hugh speaks first. “You’re Grace, right? Faith and Sarah’s nanny.” Grace looks up at his mouth, watching his lips as he continues to talk. His dark, glistening indigo lips as they rise and fall. His delicious mouth. “You’re probably in here for the same reason I am. I’m sorry all that happened out there. Lisa can be… a lot. I’m Hugh.” He places a soft hand on her elbow, jolting her enough to clear the blockage.
Words tumble recklessly from Grace’s mouth. “Of course, I know who you are Mr. Stavenow. I can’t believe you know who I am. I’ve watched every season of Under the Sun. The first two twice. Right now, I’m on season three, episode four, the one where there’s a fire and you help put it out. I can’t wait to get to the next season. That’s my favorite. I don’t really like Carly though. I don’t’ think she’s right for you. She’s kind of a bitch! Don’t you think so? Oh my God, what am I saying? I don’t think I can stop talking, Mr. Stavenow. Oh! And your son. Oh my God, your son is so cute, and the way you two are with each other. It’s just, well, it’s so beautiful to watch.”
Mercifully, Hugh slides his touch up Grace’s elbow to her shoulder, calming her, quieting her. The kind, unexpected words thrown to him while he was drifting away in a sea of vulnerability are flattering. His cheeks redden through his brown skin. Grace is in shock. He is blushing because of her. Her heart is beating rapidly, the heart-shaped pendant warming, she can feel it stirring. No. Not now. I’m fine. The creature obeys, reluctantly. Hugh leans in closer to Grace. She can smell the sweet symphony of orange and bourbon barrels on his breath. His empty hand reaches back for the door handle and pulls it closed. Is he? He couldn’t be? Does he want to kiss her? His lips part slightly. His eyes fixate on hers, his deep boring eyes looking inside of her. No, through her. This cannot be. He could not possibly want her. It is all too overwhelming. The walls feel like they are closing in on Grace, but she cannot rebuke an attempt that is not really an attempt. It feels like the ground is shaking. If she is wrong, it will open up and swallow her forever.
His lips press into hers. Her head lilts backwards. Two oppositely charged entities slam into each other. Grace feels the sharp jarring sensation of electrocution. She feels limp, like a rag doll, out of control. No. This can’t happen. Her job, this family, Faith and Sarah. Everything will be at risk. Her hands rise up suddenly, and she slams two open palms into his chest. They melt into his muscle. He does not move. In the mirror behind her, her reflection shifts for an instant, vibrates.
“Woah Grace, what’s up with that? I saw the way you were looking at me today.” He moves his other hand up Grace’s thigh, around her waist and under her pants, sliding his heavy fingers under her satin underwear, pressing determined fingertips into her soft flesh. “Everything is OK.”
“Um, Mr. Stavenow, I don’t think we should do this.” The chittering begins in her ears, like shattered seashells washing up on a shore. An incessant noise she cannot silence, stealing her thoughts.
He continues to press his powerful frame against Grace, pinning her spine against the bathroom counter, trapping two vertebrates between the cold edge. The sharp pain paralyzes her. Hugh Stavenow has transformed from a performer into a predator, grown inches taller and wider, saliva drips from his lips on to her neck. His mouth smells sour, like rotten fruit. His breath is thick and muggy. Her eyes water, welling with tears of panic and irritation. Her heart beats faster, aggressively, strong. The noises in her head become louder, more obstructive.
“You said my son is cute, right? He is. Super cute – well, I mean he does look just like me.” His grotesque, monstrous head is positioned next to hers. His voice has changed. It is dark and garbled. Insidious. He forces the hot whispering sound into her ears. “Do you want one? I can give you one, just like I did for Katie.” Grace is horrified by the revelation. His pressure intensifies, his girth is unbearable, oppressive. His hands are like paws of a mauling animal, ferocious and smothering. She thinks of poor Katie. On the couch bouncing the child, the nanny-to-nanny look they shared, that Grace dismissed as venomous, but was meant as a warning, Katie recognizing Grace’s eyes for Hugh Stavenow, wishing her to stop. Katie handing her child to its father, standing by the Uber waiting to take her son home.
“Mr. Stavenow. Hugh. Please stop!” Grace is pushing as hard as she can, but it makes no difference. It feels like his hands have multiplied, there are hundreds of them attacking, feeling, probing. Her shoulders ache, he is too close for her to use her legs. She can feel his disgusting excitement pressed against her.
Grace relinquishes control. She has given him enough warnings. The rings of metallic yellow in her irises spark to life, concentric circles of amber that widen and band together. The color liquifies. Her gray eyes are consumed with a bubbling fluid. They are a radiant gold, brilliant and sparkling. The dwarf appears, bouncing around the small room, screaming wildly, ready for Grace to end this.
Hugh is shocked by what he sees in Grace’s eyes. He pauses enough for her to shift out from underneath him. He is still in the way, but a moment of clarity is roused. He dismisses the magic he’s witnessed, attempts to preserve his dignity. “Whatever, get the fuck out of here.”
A long-awaited exhale, trapped in Grace’s lungs, escapes, heavy enough to shift a mountain. She slithers by, pulls the door open enough for her to leave. Just before she does, Hugh manages some parting words. “You should consider yourself lucky. You poor, chink bitch. You’ll come around. Just like Katie did.” Grace thinks of poor Katie, trapped in a small space with this gargantuan, his convincing ways, wielding the power he has conjured from stardom.
Grace is enraged. She toes the edge of the cliff, closes her eyes, gives in, falls. She is relieved, freed of her empathy. In the mirror, Hugh watches the door close behind him. He turns on the water to wash his hands. Grace’s pale face emerges over his shoulder, appearing from nothing. Unbeknownst to Hugh, the dwarf sits on the other, large burgundy hat sitting forward, devious grin of ruddy teeth stretched under the brim, feet kicking giddily.
Under a soft breath, with a stunted Filipino accent, Grace delivers the coup de grace, “Pasensiya Na, Mr. Stavenow.”
The lights in the overhead fixture click off and on. There will not be any further seasons of Under the Sun starring Hugh Stavenow.
About the author
Holden Williams writes literary fiction with poetic undertones. His popular short story “A Woman’s First Day at the Convent” was published by Novelty Fiction as a Kindle e-book. His short story “Absence of Grace,” first published here at Novelty Fiction Gazette, was subsequently published as a Kindle e-book. Both titles are also available in PDF format via Novelty Fiction Book Club.