‘What do you mean she’s gone?’ Madison touched her cheek as she sank into an armchair. It was too soon and too public for tears, they would fall later.
‘What part of “she’s gone” don’t you understand?’ Bette’s cruel sneer had never changed in the whole eight months she and Madison had been part of the foster family. It was as if she could only see one thing in Madison, her scarred cheek, and was endlessly trying to find ways to humiliate her about it. Right from day one. Now that Darcie was gone, Madison’s mind filled with dread at how those humiliations would multiply. Darcie was the barrier, the brick wall that stood between Bette and her vicious jibes.
‘But where . . . has she . . . is she coming back? Where’s Joe?’ Madison pushed herself up out of the chair and set off to find her foster-father, she knew he would tell her the truth.
Bette’s voice followed her out of the room. ‘He won’t tell you anything, he can’t. You are mine now, Madison. See you at dinner.’
The laughter that followed tightened the knot in Madison’s insides. As she marched into the hallway and started to look for Joe, she could only remember back to the first day at the house, the first time she met Darcie . . . and Bette.
There was no point in trying to hide her scar. They had already seen it. Stared at it. As if they’d never seen imperfection before. All except the girl with the sad green eyes. Her tall, plump body rested with her back against the wall, one knee pointing out with her foot flat against the plaster as she looked at Madison.
When the girl smiled the cloud in her eyes dispersed, as if the sun had suddenly made a guest appearance. The two other kids, Mark and Emily, averted their stare. Shuffled on their feet. Looked everywhere but at Madison. Suddenly, Bette, the eldest of the four of the residential foster children, stepped out of a side door and into the fray.
She pushed Mark and Emily out of her way and came to a standstill in front of Madison, looking down at the pink slash of life’s misfortune cutting across her face.
‘What you all doing gawping at her. Ain’t you seen an ugly, disfigured monster before?’ Bette spat the words out with venom, her tongue poking out to lick the bubbles of saliva from her lips.
Madison’s shoulders sagged. She couldn’t see through Bette’s bulky figure, but she could hear footsteps hurrying along the old oak floorboards, directly behind Bette.
Not timid ones, forceful ones. With purpose. Then a voice. One full of confidence.
‘Leave her alone.’
Bette’s unerring gaze remained focused on Madison, but she cocked her head. ‘Did you say something, Darcie?’
‘I said,’ Darcie’s voice rose slightly, ‘leave her alone.’
Bette’s thin lips lifted into a snarl, and she slowly turned to face Darcie — the girl with the green eyes.
‘What did you say, you little fu—’
‘Run!’ Darcie yelled.
Madison didn’t need telling twice. She stumbled backwards, narrowly avoiding falling, turned, and ran towards the door. Swinging it back, it slammed against the wall with a crack and a puff of plaster dust.
Behind her, footsteps pounded in time with her own. Once she was on the pavement she looked over her shoulder to see it was Darcie, her saviour, rather than Bette, her tormentor.
‘Keep moving.’ Darcie grabbed Madison’s arm and dragged her alongside her.
Before long they headed down a narrow road and into a wooded area. They stopped beside a fallen tree, and Madison struggled to catch her breath. Her heart hammered against her chest, and she spoke between heavy panting breaths.
‘You… shouldn’t have… done that…’
‘I wasn’t gonna stand around while that bitch had a go at you.’
‘But you’re going to get into trouble.’
Darcie pursed her lips and shrugged. ‘What’s new?’
Madison couldn’t help but smile.
‘Anyway, Joe will be back soon,’ Darcie said in reference to their foster-father. ‘Bette knows better than to start any shit with him around.’
‘I like Joe.’ Madison thought about the plump, bearded man with the hearty laugh who had welcomed her into his home with a friendly handshake that soon turned into a hug.
‘We all do. Sometimes I wish he was my dad…’ Darcie sighed. ‘That I was part of a real family.’
‘Do you know your parents?’ Madison took off her metal framed glasses and set them down on the tree trunk.
‘Yeah.’ The sadness in Darcie’s tone was enough to let Madison know that family wasn’t a subject she wanted to talk about.
‘So how long have you been living with Joe?’
‘Six months. But I’ve been in the system for years. What about you? I mean, what’s your story?’
Madison’s mind trailed off into the dark void of regret and she was silent for a moment. Only for a moment though. For some reason, she didn’t mind opening up to Darcie.
‘We were involved in an accident.’ Madison touched her scar in remembrance. ‘The driver came on to our side of the road. He survived the crash… but my dad wasn’t so lucky. And my mum …’
‘Did she… is she…?’
‘Dead? No, but she needs a lot of care. So social services thought I’d be better off in a home while she recovers.’
‘Sorry to hear that. I hope the bastard that caused the accident served time in prison.’
Madison looked at Darcie through tear-blurred vision. ‘It wasn’t his fault. He had a heart attack. Suppose we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.’
‘Shit, that is really crappy.’
‘Yep. I just wish . . .’ Madison blinked back tears. ‘I wish sometimes I could turn back time, so that everything went back to how it was, so I could have my family back.’
Silence fell between them. Madison tried to think of something else to say, she felt better having told at least some of her story. She sat on the tree and Darcie moved to sit beside her.
‘Hey, you know what Bette said back there…’ Darcie lowered her gaze to the ground and kicked at the dirt, ‘about your face—’
The heat in Madison’s cheeks intensified. ‘Don’t worry, I’m used to it.’
‘Well you shouldn’t be. Because she’s wrong.’ There was sincerity in Darcie’s voice, and she reached out and trailed Madison’s scar with her fingertip. Leaning in, she pressed her lips against Madison’s cheek. ‘There’s nothing hideous or ugly about you. You’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.’
Up above, the sky rumbled. Dark clouds pooled together, obliterating the sun. Despite this, the heaviness in Madison’s heart lifted.
‘You don’t have to say that…’
‘Yes, I do.’ A lock of hair fell across Madison’s eye and Darcie tenderly pushed it aside. ‘And I’ll keep telling you until one day you believe it yourself.’
In all her sixteen years, Madison had never been so happy. For the first time ever, she felt wanted and… beautiful. Yes, beautiful. The past eight months were like a fairy-tale. She had found her soul mate in Darcie. They had both known this from their first kiss. Their first touch.
She had even started looking forward to visiting her mum in that hideous hospital, full of the joy of knowing Darcie would be there when she got back.
But she wasn’t there this time.
Madison found Joe sitting in his office, tapping away on his computer. He swivelled on his chair and his face lit up when he saw her.
‘What a fantastic day, eh, Madison? Amazing in fact.’
The look of joy tinged with just a hint of sadness confused Madison.
‘What . . . how do you mean?’
‘I tell you, Madison, nobody was more surprised than me. First Darcie is told she is on the move then I get an email about you to say your uncle has been made your legal guardian and you are going to live with him in a week’s time. Fantastic news, isn’t it? After all this time, you’ll finally be back with family.’
‘A week . . . but Darcie? Where did she go?’
‘I’m sorry, Madison. I know you two were close, but I can’t tell you. Privacy and all that.’
‘I never got a chance to say goodbye.’
Joe turned back to his computer. ‘I know, but look on the bright side. One more week and you’re out of here.’
One more week. Out of the frying pan, and into the fire. Only a week of avoiding Bette without Darcie’s protection. Only a week before going off with an uncle she hadn’t seen for years and she hadn’t liked him then.
Her thoughts drifted off to Darcie, and Madison vowed to never forget the girl with the green eyes that had stolen her heart.
Feeling an overwhelming sense of her life spiralling out of control, all Madison could do was pray that one day, fate would look kindly on her and lead her back into Darcie’s arms. If it did, she would never let her go again.
‘Great, just what I need,’ Darcie muttered to herself as she set off in the direction of her office building. She checked the time on her phone. She still had an hour before her presentation, so she would have time to grab a coffee, and get herself straightened up before her prospective clients arrived. The plan was a quick dash into the coffee shop across the road from her building for a morning pick-me-up, to go, and ten minutes in the bathroom at the office then she would be ready to roll.
When Darcie stepped through the door into the café the aroma hit her, reminding her why she called in so often. The bittersweet, coffee-laden air, mixed with the smell of freshly baked pastries made her stomach rumble. She’d had no time for breakfast. No, that wasn’t entirely true. She would have had time were it not for trying on five different outfits for her meeting before finally settling on the tailored black suit she was now wearing.
Thankfully the queue in the café was bearable. Three customers waiting to one side, heads bent, eyes fixed on their phones like three versions of the same cut-out figure, all awaiting a hot drink. Another three people in front of Darcie.
She checked the time again. Fifty-five minutes before the biggest presentation of her life. The butterflies started to flutter again inside.
She started to run over the well-rehearsed phrases in her head again for the umpteenth time, picturing each agonised-over slide from her PowerPoint presentation flashing up on the stark white walls of her office.
The clash of glass making contact with the floor and a slight curse in a woman’s voice, made her jump out of her zoned-out space.
Half-watching the scene from where she stood, Darcie saw a flustered waitress squatting down to clear the mess. Another woman, her back turned towards Darcie, was busily mopping up spills with wads of paper napkins. Normally she would have offered to help but …
‘Morning. Usual?’ the barista asked.
Darcie was jolted again. She hadn’t realised she was next in line. ‘Sorry, Trace, I’m in a world of my own. I think I’ll have an extra shot of coffee today. Big day.’
‘Cool.’ Trace leant over and whispered in a conspiratorial tone as she waved away Darcie’s proffered payment card. ‘It’s on the house.’
Trace nodded. ‘With the amount of coffee you buy, it’s enough to keep me in business all year. I’ll even throw in a muffin.’
Darcie didn’t know if coffee on the house was a good thing or not. Maybe her coffee consumption was the cause of her sleepless nights. She’d have to have a think about that. Harmless habit or a health risk? I’ll cut back, she smiled to herself, next week.
Darcie watched a delicious-looking muffin disappear into a paper carry bag with the coffee shop’s logo printed on it in gold, and the bag and her coffee being slid across the counter to her. Her stomach rumbled again.
‘There you go. See you at lunchtime, Darcie.’
Flashing Trace a smile of thanks, Darcie turned to step away from the chrome and glass counter. As she did, she bumped straight into a customer who was still waiting for her order. The impact, slight as it was, caused the woman’s bag to slip from her hand and onto the floor, scattering its contents, sending them bouncing across the hard, wooden flooring in every imaginable direction.
Darcie bent down, apologising, and put her drink and bag on the floor while she helped the woman who was frantically scrambling to pick up her scattered possessions.
‘This is so embarrassing,’ the woman said as she snatched up a small pack of tampons and quickly shoved it in her bag.
‘I wouldn’t worry. There’s nothing here that isn’t in every woman’s handbag,’ Darcie said, trying to reassure her while handing over a small makeup bag.
‘I’m sure, but I still don’t want all and sundry to see the crap I carry round.’
Darcy turned over a small, black plastic rectangle. ‘What? Like a mini pool table?’ Darcie grinned and handed it to the woman.
‘Ah, yes, there’s a reason for that. I forget what it is right now but …’
Until now Darcie’s attention had been wholly focused on gathering the woman’s belongings. It was only when she looked up and their gazes locked that her breath slid away from her.
The smile on Darcie’s lips froze.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood to attention.
There was something about the woman that reminded her of …
No, it couldn’t be her. She knew it couldn’t possibly be, but …
The woman in front of her had flawless skin. She was blonde, not brunette. She could have dyed her hair. But her face…
The woman’s eyes … the ones she had never tired of looking into.
She’d drowned in them. Lost herself in their endless depths.
They were the same aqua green, flecked with gold. Everything about this stranger screamed of her. Madison.
But her cheek… Frowning, Darcie pushed herself up to her full height.
‘Sorry for staring. It’s just that you remind me of someone.’ Darcie couldn’t let those eyes go, then, when she realised what she was doing, glanced around the room to see absolutely nobody paying them the first bit of attention. ‘I swear that’s not a line. You really do.’
‘I hope she was nice,’ the woman said, looking down briefly as she zipped her bulging bag closed.
‘Yes,’ Darcie paused as long-buried memories came to the fore. ‘Yes, she was.’
‘Don’t forget your coffee,’ the woman’s sensuous lips curved into a smile.
‘Your coffee.’ The woman gestured to the container and carry bag on the floor.
‘Coffee? Yeah, right, coffee. Sorry. OK then.’ Darcie bent to pick them up, scanning the floor, clearing her throat. ‘Sure we haven’t missed anything?’
‘Good, good. I’d better get going then.’
‘That’s a good idea. I should get my own fix as well.’ She nodded vaguely over her shoulder.
Darcie considered asking the stranger if she wanted to join her for a coffee, but one look at her phone told her she didn’t have time. Her meeting was in forty eight minutes and she needed almost all of those to prepare.
It was make or break time for her company. If she didn’t secure the contract she could say goodbye to the dream she had worked so hard to achieve.
Reluctantly, Darcie adjusted her bag and fully-loaded hands, and bade farewell to the stranger who had momentarily made her forget about work.
No one ever made Darcie forget about work.
Copyright 2018 by Jade Winters
All rights reserved. This short story or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author. All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.