I feel pretty …
“Almost finished.” A heavy blast of breath-stealing hair spray hit Charlotte Rudy just above her crown.
That’s thirty-two times. She had counted every last spray as she sat cross-legged on the floor between her grandmother’s substantial thighs.
Thirty-two sprays and fifty-five minutes.
She didn’t have to look in the mirror to know that long gone was her mass of unruly waves. Armed with a comb and a can of chemicals, her grandmother had turned her once soft hair into a golden steel helmet.
Tornado-proof hair, she thought wryly as she patted the hard sticky mass. It felt a little like crystallized cotton candy. She wanted to eat cotton candy, not look like it.
“Move your hand, Cherri!” her grandmother scolded in her still-thick Ukrainian accent as she smacked it. “I’m not done yet.”
Cherri moved her stinging hand just before another cool blast of hair-freezing chemicals hit her square in the face. “Good grief, Baba!” she choked, the air in her lungs now replaced with spray. “Are you sure that stuff is legal?”
“Legal?” Her grandmother frowned at the can of industrial-sized of Hold Her Forever. “Of course it’s legal.” She sprayed Cherri once more. “I’m not sure why they stopped making it in 1986.”
“Baba! It probably causes cancer.” She confiscated the can and made a mental note to throw it out as soon as her grandmother wasn’t looking.
“Oh, stop freaking up. I’ve used this ever since I came to America in 1957 and I’m still healthy as an ox.”
Cherri shook her head. Fifty-plus years and her grandmother’s grasp on the English language was still lacking. “The saying is freaking out, Baba. Not freaking up.”
Baba shrugged. “Freaking out, freaking up. Whatever. You young people think everything causes cancer. In my country nobody has cancer. We die from hard work and old age. This hair spray does nothing but make one look beautiful.”
Cherri touched the sticky mass atop her head once more, positive that beautiful was the wrong word to describe how she looked. But she nodded at her grandmother’s statement. She knew that there was no use arguing with Baba. She couldn’t win. Besides, her time left with the old woman was limited, and she wanted to make the best of it.
That’s why she’d agreed to let her aging, half-blind, slightly unstable grandmother give her a makeover tonight.
“And don’t think about throwing it out, either,” Baba warned. “Because I bought two cases when I found out they were going to stop making it.”
Wily old broad. Baba was three steps away from being featured on an episode of Hoarders. “I would never think to throw out your things,” she lied sweetly. Cherri was going to have to start making trips to the dump again.
“Good girl.” Baba patted her cheek. “Now go look at yourself. You’ll be the most stunning girl at your birthday party.”
Cherri stood, hearing the rustle of the taffeta as she walked toward the full-length mirror. She didn’t want to look at herself. When her grandmother had presented her with the homemade dress earlier that day, she’d gritted her teeth and plastered a smile on her face.
Taffeta and crinoline and gold. Oh my!
“Open your eyes, dumb-dumb.” Baba poked her in the behind with her cane, which she only used when it suited her. “Who looks at themselves with closed eyes? You look ridiculous!”
“I’m just savoring the moment, Baba.”
Cherri forced her lids open, taking in the whole spectacular picture she presented.
She flinched. Holy frickin’ crap on a cracker! Ridiculous was an understatement. She was covered in bows. On her shoulders. At her bust. On her hips.
I can’t leave the house like this. I look like a six-foot-tall Christmas present.
It was as if every 1980s prom dress and every horrible bridesmaid dress ever created banded together and threw up on her. Puffy sleeves and ruffles complemented the bows. The gold of the dress turned her skin a sickly green color. Even her feet hadn’t escaped the horror. Her normally big stompers looked enormous in golden pumps, dyed to match her one-of-a-kind dress. And her hair … It was logic defying and oh-so-high.
She was a walking hot mess.
Come and get it, fellas.
“Well?” Cherri met her grandmother’s hopeful eyes in the mirror.
“I love it!”
“You do?” Baba smiled brightly, her green eyes twinkling with pleasure.
“Of course I do.” She bent to kiss her grandmother’s, soft wrinkled cheek. White lies were fine. Right? Okay, so maybe this was a big fat whopper of a lie, but how could she tell the woman who’d raised her, who went without so that she could have, that she didn’t like the thing she’d spent so many hours creating? She couldn’t. “Thank you for doing this for me.”
“It was nothing.” Baba, not one for mushy emotions, briefly squeezed Cherri before clapping her hands twice. “Now get out of here. It’s time for you to rip the carpet at your party.”
“It’s cut the rug, Baba,” Cherri reminded her gently. “But I will.”
“You’ll be back before midnight?”
She was twenty-two, but her grandmother still didn’t want her out late. And after the past few months Cherri made it a point to stick close to home. “I’ll tuck you in and read you a bedtime story when I come back.”
“Don’t be fresh.” She swatted Cherri. “You know only fast girls stay out late.”
“And the only things open past eleven o’clock are legs and liquor stores.”
“It’s true.” She kissed both her cheeks and shoved her toward the door. “And call me if you get bitchfaced and can’t drive home.”
“That’s shitfaced, Baba. And you don’t have to worry. I won’t drink tonight.”
The prospect of her seventy-five-year-old grandmother driving at night caused Cherri to shudder as she navigated the icy driveway to get to her beat-up Dodge truck. She had to squish the huge dress to her sides in order to get in—and once she did, the cold seat touching her bare legs was a shock to her system. It was a chilly fourteen degrees that night, and as the harsh wind swirled around the vehicle she wondered why her grandparents had decided to settle in the Adirondacks instead of Miami.
She disregarded the thought as she stuck the key in the ignition and sent a silent prayer to her guardian angel.
“Come on, old girl,” she crooned at the truck. “You can do it. Mommy loves you so very very much.”
The old thing didn’t start half the time; it had a tendency to stall, and the heat didn’t work. But it was good for short distances. And it had belonged to her grandfather. Getting rid of it was not an option.
Mercifully the car roared to life, sending a blast of icy air into Cherri’s face. She shivered. Car trouble would have been the perfect excuse to not go to the birthday party that her best friends and bosses Ellis and Mike had decided to throw for her.
“It’s your I’m-an-official-ass-kicking-adult party,” Ellis said when she had first mentioned it and Cherri shot it down. “Let me do this for you, honey. You deserve it.”
Cherri agreed, even though the thought of being the center of attention made her stomach knot. She wasn’t the type of girl who made a big fuss about things. She was perfectly content to stay in the background. Which was no easy feat, considering she was pushing six feet tall, had an unruly mass of dark blond hair, and resembled an eastern European giant. But still she tried.
It had been only her and her grandparents up until Papa died seven years ago. Even then birthdays were small affairs with just a cake and special meal. Never a big fuss. She didn’t know who her father was. Her mother wasn’t a fixture in her life and had stopped coming around regularly when Cherri turned eight.
Natasha didn’t often sneak into her mind, but on days like this, on birthdays and holidays, she wondered why her mother never bothered to stick around. Why she’d left a baby with an elderly couple struggling to make ends meet.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” poured from the radio, and Cherri realized that her thoughts had turned depressing. She shook herself out of them. It was probably a good thing she was going to a party. For a few hours she could forget about the fact that despite her master’s degree she was still working in a dress shop, the student loans would keep her broke until menopause, and the roof was about to cave in on them. Or that Baba …
She shook her head hard. Tonight was her party and even though she looked liked the Jolly Gold Giant she was determined to enjoy herself.
Be happy, damn it! It’s your birthday. Christmas is coming.
She pulled out of the driveway.
Things will get better, she promised herself. They had to.
* * *
She arrived at Ellis’s door an hour before the festivities were due to begin, her coat tightly wrapped around her to protect her from the frigid wind that hadn’t let up for days. She rang the bell and waited only a few seconds before Ellis’s husband, Mike, opened the door.
He froze, mouth agape, his hand suspended in midair. “What the hell happened to you, kid?”
“What?” She made her expression blank, as if she didn’t know what he was referring to.
“Your hair.” He reached out and touched it, seemingly unable to help himself. “It’s horrible.”
“Mikey!” his wife snapped from behind him. “What are you saying to her?”
“I—I…” He glanced at his wife and then back to Cherri, who was having a hard time keeping a straight face. She wasn’t offended by Mike’s statement. She realized that she put the B in bouffant. “Come look at her, babe.”
Ellis peeked around her husband’s shoulder. “Oh, Cherri.” She shook her head. “Oh, sweetheart. Oh no! Who did this to you?”
“What? Don’t you like it?” In that moment Cherri was glad she’d braved the cold to come here. Ellis was the most fashionable person she knew, and being a boutique owner and designer she always had the best clothes. “I think it goes well with the dress.” She slid the coat off her arms in a dramatic fashion and strutted into their living room like she was on a catwalk.
Mike, unable to contain himself, burst into laughter. Ellis, as if in pain, bit her knuckle. “Who did this to you?” she asked again.
“My grandmother.” Cherri put her hands on her hips and attempted her best model pose, sending Mike into hysterics.
“Does she hate you?”
“No. She worked very hard on this dress. She thinks I look bee-yoo-ti-ful.”
“Do another turn on the catwalk,” Mike choked. She had never seen the tough former cop giggle like a schoolgirl, and it lifted her spirits to be the cause of his glee. She raised her head high and sashayed farther into their small house, stopping only to pose dramatically.
She heard slow clapping when she stopped, but it didn’t come from Ellis or her laughing husband. She turned to see Colin O’Connell, Mike’s women-loving, Irish-accent-having best friend gazing at her.
He wasn’t in hysterics like Mike, but Cherri had definitely amused him. One side of his mouth curled into a lazy smile, and his soft brown eyes seemed to follow suit, crinkling at the corners.
She had known this man for over a year. The moment she’d laid eyes on him, she’d known he wasn’t a man made for mere mortal women. In fact, he was so far out of her league that for once in her life she forgot to be uneasy around him. But tonight his unabashed male beauty affected her, and for a split second she wished that she were small, and thin, and graceful. But she wasn’t any of those things. She was Cherri, built like a lumberjack, taller than most men, and very far from just plain average. So she ordered her cheeks to stop burning and turned to face him, posing as seductively as her six feet and big behind could manage.
“Hey, sailor,” she purred, mocking her grandmother’s thick Ukrainian accent. “You like what you see?”
Colin’s slow smile bloomed into a full one, and for the tiniest moment Cherri was breathless. He raised his glass to her in a toast. “Aw, love. I think you just made my year.”
Copyright © 2014 by Sugar Jamison