Here’s So Beautiful, the entire story:
By Laura McHale Holland
Engulfed by early morning fog, Marcie spots a dusty green bottle in The Gap’s storefront window. Beyond vintage, the glass vessel leaning against a mannequin’s boot is conspicuous amid the stylish denim and knits on display. Marcie, wrinkled and bent, is drawn to it.
She’s been longing for a potion—a strong one—so she can jump up and down in the stands at a baseball game. Rain pouring or wind roaring, it won’t matter. It won’t matter because once she takes a sip, she will be thick skinned with rosy cheeks and nary an ache in her joints.
She wants a magic elixir so Arturo, her true love, can return to her, so they can make love from dusk to dawn in a tent on a far off beach, no worries about what the future will bring. She wants a potion to take her back—if only for a day—so she can race full tilt down the sidewalk to catch a streetcar and know in that moment exactly how beautiful she is.
She leans closer to the window and instinctively stretches a gnarled hand toward the pane. When her fingers meet the glass, they slip through, as though dipping into water. Startled, she pauses, holding her breath. Then she reaches forward. When she is in up to her shoulder, she grabs the bottle, snatches her arm back and slips the treasure into her trench coat pocket. Circles ripple where she had permeated the glass.
Marcie watches, transfixed, until all is still. Then she touches the pane, tapping at first. It’s solid. She slaps it with her palm. It doesn’t give. Pressing with both hands, she leans against it with all her weight. It’s like any ordinary storefront window.
A bus pulls up to the curb. Marcie boards.
* * *
Kelly spreads a blanket on the sand as her son, Jason, dashes barefoot to the shore. “Stay close,” she calls to him, though she is not worried. This little bay is a spec of calm beyond which wind surfers navigate rough waters. And five-year-old Jason never wades in deeper than his ankles unless Kelly is beside him, holding his hand.
Jason’s sister, Coco, fusses in her stroller. Kelly unbuckles the tyke and lifts her up. The child squeals and coos and slurps. Kelly marvels at the array of sounds one little baby can make and feels grateful for the flexible work schedule that allows her to hear her daughter’s language unfold.
Kelly sits down, Coco on her lap, and pulls a jar of mashed sweet potatoes from her diaper bag, along with a baby spoon and napkin. Keeping an eye on Jason, who is now at work on a sand castle, Kelly feeds her daughter. Coco giggles as food dribbles down her chin. Kelly wipes the tot’s face and then puts the food away. She won’t force Coco to eat, for the babe is plump and rosy-cheeked—unlike Jason who was born premature at 28 weeks. His first two years were a rash of incisions, tubes, monitors and transfusions. Kelly fretted constantly because he was underweight and slow to develop. But now, ready to start kindergarten, Jason is normal in every measurement, with scars beneath his clothes the only reminders of his struggles to live.
Jason calls out, “Mommy! Mommy! Come see this itty bitty sand dollar.”
Kelly rises, picks Coco up and carries her to the spot where Jason is busy shaping turrets atop a rectangular mound. He shows her the smallest sand dollar she has ever seen, about half an inch in diameter.
“It’s perfect, Jason. Absolutely perfect.” She says.
“Hold it for me?” He hands her the treasure.
“Sure. I’ll put it in my bag.” With Coco on one hip, Kelly strides back toward the blanket. Along the way, she notices Marcie on a bench, tossing chunks of bread to a flock of pigeons at her feet. Kelly sees the woman here often. Last week they greeted each other and exchanged names and a few words about the weather. Kelly imagines she, too, might spend afternoons feeding pigeons when her children are long gone.
The wind picks up, and dark clouds come into view on the horizon. Shivering, Kelly wraps the sand dollar in a napkin and tucks it into the padded diaper bag. She fits Coco into a jacket that used to be Jason’s and settles her on the blanket with a set of plastic blocks. Then she holds up her son’s cardigan. “Come get your sweater,” she calls. “I don’t want you to get chilled.”
“Can I just finish the moat?”
“Sure, Honey Bear, but don’t take long.”
In the light dancing at the water’s edge, it looks to Kelly as though Jason sports a golden halo, like an angel. She expects she’ll tell her husband about this over dinner, and they’ll agree her sleep-deprived eyes are playing tricks on her. But she can’t imagine wanting to trade places with anyone, ever, no matter how often she’s awake in the night, rocking her babes back to sleep.
* * *
Ho lifts the Open/Closed sign from his shop’s front window, turns the hands of its clock and flips it. “Closed. Back at 1:30” now faces the street. He hasn’t taken time off for lunch in years, but his wife, Lily, and daughter, Jasmine, have been down with the flu for a week, and one of his long-time neighbors, Marcie, just dropped off homemade chicken soup for them on her way to the beach. She said it contained a secret elixir that would fix them up in no time. Ho doubts that, but he does believe in the healing power of good old chicken soup.
He carries the warm soup up the back stairs to the flat where his family lives. There’s just enough for three people. He serves Lily and Jasmine, who out on living room couches, watching an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Back in the kitchen, he pours the last of the savory brew for himself and takes a sip. It slides like a caress down his throat. He makes a mental note to ask Marcie if she could prepare a big batch to sell in the shop. He brings the spoon to his lips for another sip when he hears a thump, then glass breaking, followed by his store alarm blaring. He races down the back stairs, through the store and out the front door just in time to see a man running, with Ho’s electronic cash register under one arm and a bottle of liquor under the other.
The thief is almost a block ahead, but Ho gives chase and finds he is surprisingly fleet of foot. The thief looks over his shoulder. Ho recognizes Darrell, one of the thugs who hang out on the corner and make eyes at Jasmine whenever she passes by. Incensed, Ho runs faster, thinking it must be the adrenaline that is helping him catch up to the man.
Darrell reaches the beach, and his heavy boots slow him down in the sand. Ho hits the beach and runs faster. Gaining more ground, he calls out, “Stop!” He sprints harder, and sees Marcie, a young woman and baby playing with blocks on a blanket, a little boy at the water’s edge and several other people milling about. He keeps going. “Stop!” he calls again.
The scoundrel drops the cash register and the liquor, but though his load is lighter, Ho continues to gain on him.
“Stop! I said,” Ho calls.
Darrell finally stops, spins around and pulls out a semiautomatic pistol. He shoots. Wildly. Without aim. He twirls and shoots, twirls and shoots, twirls and shoots. The beach becomes one enormous scream. Ho continues to run, unable to stop. A bullet hits him in the heart. He drops. Darrell points the gun to his own temple and shoots.
The sand fills with blood.
* * *
Marcie sees Jason go down, then Kelly. Unable to tend to both at once, Marcie races to the boy. Waves lap at Jason’s body, which is oozing blood into the water. Marcie sits in the wet sand and cradles his head in her lap. She pulls the green bottle from her pocket, uncaps it and pours liberally on wounds in Jason’s chest and abdomen. The boy lets out several short gasps, and his bleeding stops, but Marcie sees fresh blood on the sand. She looks at her belly and realizes the blood is her own. She slides Jason off her lap and, crouching, pulls him away from the water. She tries to stand, but stumbles and falls. So she crawls up the beach to Kelly and empties the last of the elixir into a wound in the young mother’s neck. She re-caps the bottle, but then grows dizzy; her body tingles; the bottle slips into the sand.
Marcie hears sirens. Commanding voices. Footsteps canvassing the beach. She hears Jason call, “Mommy! Mommy!” as he is carried away on a stretcher. Someone picks up Coco, who is wailing. A paramedic checks on Kelly. “I think this one’s gonna make it,” he says.
For Marcie, the cacophony of rescue, pungency of rotting seaweed and sunscreen, and sensation of blood pumping from her body quickly fade. Someone leans over her. The person’s lips are moving, but she doesn’t hear the words. She closes her eyes, lets out one last breath. And then Arturo is before her, holding out his hand. She pats her torso. She has no wound. Feeling vibrant and strong, neither young nor old, Marcie races to his embrace. “You are so beautiful,” he says. And Marcie knows in that moment he is absolutely right.
* * *
Long after the crime scene tape is gone, Ho’s daughter, Jasmine, stands on the spot where her father died. With wind from the water blowing her hair back like a super hero’s cape, she whispers. She tells her father all that is in her heart, including how much she appreciates everything he did for her, everything he gave her, down to the last, delectable bowl of soup on the day he died.
When she has no more words, Jasmine scans the beach and spots something glistening a few feet away. Inching closer, she sees it is green glass. She digs with her bare hands, pulls up the bottle and wipes away bits of sand clinging to its surface. Then she holds it up to the sky and shakes. The bottle gurgles. Wondering what kind of liquid it contains, Jasmine puts it in her pocket and ambles homeward. Along the way, she nods to a woman with a baby girl in her lap and little boy at her side. They’re feeding bread to a flock of pigeons at their feet.
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Copyright © 2014 by Laura McHale Holland