Stars in Her Eyes, by Dona McCormack, appears in our Aggregate anthology.
Dona McCormack is a disabled writer living in Northeast Ohio with four fuzzbutts, one oversized goldfish-chomping aquatic turtle, and Michael, her devoted partner. When she’s not poking a notebook with a pen (sometimes by design), Dona pokes thread into fabric (always by design). She writes Realism and Weird, she’s published in several journals including SEP.com, and she won third in Reflex Fiction’s Summer 2019 Flash Contest. Dona’s website: https://DonaMcCormack1.wixsite.com/donawrites, Twitter: @DonaWrites, and Instagram: @DonaWritesInsta.
Wind ripped at the tangled fabric of Willa’s clothing. She pressed her dark glasses closer to her face and tugged her sweater tighter around her frame, hugged down toward the sidewalk, away from the spring gust. Away from the smells it carried of rain-turned soil and fresh mowed grass, of churning earthworms and soggy tree bark. She wished that she could fold herself neatly within her shoes—invisible, squarely-fitted-Willa-feet and nothing else, stepping along, well below everyone’s eyeline. She could not do that, so she curled down, toward her feet.
A man emerged from the dentist’s office on the corner and turned her way. Her step quickened, then slowed, then quickened again. A dance of indecision.
He pulled his brown overcoat against the wind and tipped her his bowler hat. She ducked the kindness, tucking her chin in the hollow she had dug into her chest over the many years. Hiding did things to a body. Crumpled it. Compressed it. Obscured it and marked it with pockets. Willa’s chin rested in the pocket in her chest, hiding her face from the man. She didn’t miss his look of disturbance.
When he passed, she stretched her neck a few inches. Pressed her glasses close to her face and fought the urge to look back at the man—had he been handsome? Would she have recognized him? Maybe he’d shared something of the only face that mattered, the one that always said the same words, from a mouth painted with hot pink that stained coffee-yellowed teeth. Ma’s face. Might he have had lips thin and hard from a thin hard life, like Ma’s lips. Maybe those lips would have said, “Those stars will cut you to ribbons, my girl.”
Willa sat on a bench. Hard slats pinched thick thighs, but her boots pleased her. Patent leather to the knee, with tiny buttons all the way up the side. Pigeons pecked around the pointed toes, looking for crumbs. She liked the birds’ muted grey against the boots’ shiny black. She imagined buffing the feathers against the slick fabric and her mouth almost smiled. Then understanding of the strangeness of her thought warmed her belly to flutters and tingled her fingers.
She waited for a job interview in the pharmacy and junk store behind the bench she occupied, but she was twenty minutes early. She planned to wait ten minutes more before letting them know she had arrived. How might over-punctuality make her look, she worried.
She watched the pigeons and rubbed her finger over the greenish brass plaque mounted on the bench. “In Memoria Iris Josip,” her skin read over and again. She tried not to pick at the weave of her sweater, flick her nails, chew her lips. This interview marked four this month, and she was still waiting on follow-up from the first three.
Seven minutes before her appointment time, Willa walked into a rush of warm air and bright light. She picked her way down a tunnel of fight-flight-or-freeze to find the manager, Bradley—blonde and peach-fuzzy, tall and meaty, lumbered like he played wide receiver on the high school team. He smiled like he loved to, laughed with inner humor, and made intense eye contact. He asked her questions and nodded during her answers, punctuating her words with “aha” and “interesting.” At the end of the interview, he showed her around the store and asked about her availability. And then—as always happened—he asked about her glasses.
And she froze. Because she couldn’t take them off. She couldn’t. The warning, the stars…
He saw her hesitation. “If there’s a disability,” he said, “all we need is a doctor’s release.”
But she didn’t have one—a doctor’s release. A disability? She didn’t have one of those either. Did she? She could see just fine. She just needed a job. Just needed to pay the bills.
“I-I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t work here if I can’t wear the glasses.” And she turned to leave, but not before she saw Bradley’s look of disturbance.
A different bench in a quiet corner of a park. Different slats pinching the same spots on the same thighs. Willa tucked her chin into the hollow in her chest and sobbed. Her hands tangled in her lap, her fingers looping into the weave of her sweater. Her tears made a grayish-green bubble of the surrounding trees.
“Why are you crying?”
Willa started a little on the bench when she saw someone had joined her. The voice belonged to a little girl with freckles and curly red hair. She had big brown eyes and wore an open, frank expression. Willa felt that she liked her at once, something she never felt with strangers, children or adults. “What’s your name?”
The little girl smirked. “Candise.”
“I’m Willa.” She decided to be honest and sobbed again. “I can’t take off my sunglasses.”
Candise giggled and slapped a hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry to laugh. But that’s so funny! Like ever? Even when you take a bath?”
Willa shook her head slowly. Her inside tossed and turned. “Not even then. Only when I go to sleep, and I close my eyes. Then I take them off once my eyes are already closed. In the mornings, I put them back on before I open my eyes.” Willa sobbed again. “I can’t even look at my own eyes anymore!”
Candise pressed her fingers to her lips and then removed them. Willa could see the white imprints of her fingers on the purpling skin of her mouth. “Why can’t you?” Candise asked.
Willa sniffed hard. “You won’t believe me. Just laugh at me again.”
“I won’t. I’m sorry I laughed. I promise, Willa. Scout’s honor.” She held up four fingers. Willa pushed the pinkie down.
Willa held up matching fingers and let them drop. Her voice was a near whisper. “I have stars in my eyes.” She tucked her head and gulped. “If anyone—maybe even me?—sees my eyes, they’ll cut me to ribbons.”
The little girl dropped her chin and lifted her brow. Willa thought to herself how old the child looked with all those wrinkles in her forehead. “Someone important told you some strange things, I think.” She pressed her lips together for a minute. “Maybe you should show me your eyes.”
Willa said nothing but grew rigid on the bench.
Candise said, “Well, you haven’t been wearing those glasses forever right? When did you start wearing them?”
“When I was fourteen.”
“So, kids saw your eyes before and you didn’t get hurt, right? And I’m a kid, so I’m safe. It’s a good test, right? I can tell you if there’s really stars in your eyes.”
Willa gulped. Nodded. Her hands trembled hard as she lifted them from her lap. Candise reached over and placed her cool, freckled hands on Willa’s hammering white ones and pressed them back down. Then, she gently pulled Willa’s sunglasses off her face.
Willa’s narrow nose dented in and glowed bright red from bearing the weight of the sunglasses for so long. The skin around her eyes was ghostly blue from lack of sun.
Candise smiled. “See? You’re not cut to ribbons.”
“No stars?” Willa breathed.
“No stars.” Candise said. “Just eyes and lies.”
Willa wore the glasses home, but they felt different—on her face and not part of her face. When the woman in the pink coat passed her, Willa fought the urge to tuck into her chest pocket. Instead, she nodded. Her chin dipped, her neck trying hard to droop low toward the hollow. But her muscles resisted the habit with a creak and lifted the weight of her head back up. Her lips twitched into a smile. The woman smiled back. Willa lifted onto her toes.
A message awaited her when she arrived home. A single red dot glowed in the curtained darkness. Bradley’s eager voice filled the small house, bouncing off the polished hardwood floors and the sterile dustcovers. He explained that he’d enjoyed her interview and that he’d like to help her out with a job, if she was so amenable. He used that word, amenable, and she grinned at such a word from a blonde teddy bear of a man like Bradley. He said they could work something out with the glasses. That she needn’t worry about them. Willa grinned wider. She called him back right before the pharmacy closed. While she talked to Bradley about taking to job, she smiled at the fridge door and the three sticky notes with the managers’ phone numbers she hadn’t been able to call.
Before she went to bed, Willa stared in the bathroom mirror and took the dark plastic off her face. That her eyes terrified a small-minded woman like her mother and made her in turn terrorize her daughter made no one wonder, Willa least of all. The irises resembled not typical starbursts but pale lavender marbles. Distributed throughout the irises, intense violet clusters, which prompted her mother to so relentlessly hurl the stars-in-the-eyes torture at her.
She had not seen her eyes since childhood. Within her, something stirred. The stars her mother had always spied in her eyes danced. Those things of which her mother had been so terrified shined. She had a job; her glasses were off.
And now, everything could just possibly work out for Willa.
Bradley stood back and watched Willa. She worked her first shift today and he had let her wear the glasses. “What customers don’t know can’t hurt them,” he’d said with an indulgent smile. He stayed in her line of vision, always pink in the face and hands fluttering over the shelves. She tried to understood his nerves; that he saw her as a charity case, she didn’t try to understand, but she needed the job and she was happier than ever to have one.
Her trainer, Barb, wore a helmet of hairnet and purple acrylic claws. Between gum pops and gnaws, she chatted up the customers about their kids and her Yorkie and made it her mission to invade Willa’s steel personal bubble with friendly pokes, pats, and pushes. Willa watched Barb ring a sale—blue lines of data logging on the screen, one under the last—as Bradley watched Willa stand quietly in her glasses.
Willa realized—the time had come.
The customer Barb was currently checking out dressed in loose jeans and a slogan t-shirt and hoodie; he carried a backpack, half-zipped, with books and a skateboard sticking out. He had piled on the counter energy drinks and Excedrin, tampons, Midol, and chocolate. He was somebody’s good boyfriend.
Willa met his ordinary green eyes and smiled. She asked him how his day was coming along, and her voice surprised her in its evenness. As he answered her, she lifted her hand—not even trembling—to remove the glasses from her face. Behind the customer, Willa saw Bradley first look surprised, then pleased.
The plastic of the glasses rubbed against the skin behind her ears as the earpieces pulled away. The nose piece popped slightly as the seal from her skin oil broke free and the glasses started sliding down her nose. She gazed at the customer, grinning, ecstatic to meet someone’s eyes for the first time in her adult life.
The young man did a double take when he first saw Willa’s eyes. His eyebrows raised and his smile took on a dreamy quality. His speech trailed off and he stared into her eyes.
“Hey, has anyone ever told you,” he said—
—And Willa felt a bolt of ice go through her. Her body went numb. Please don’t say it, she begged silently.
“You have stars in your eyes?” he finished. And then she caught his look of disturbance. “Oh my god, you’re bleeding!” Bradley’s shout filled the store and Willa looked up to see his giant blonde bulk flying down the center aisle toward her. The customer before her gaped and started backing away from the counter. As she fumbled her glasses back onto her face, she spied long ragged tears in the weave of her sweater and the blood streaming from the gashes all over her body.