Eye of the Beholder

Cassie drifted up and down aisles stocked with mess kits, ammunition boxes, helmets, and such inside Big Mike’s Army Surplus, waiting for the few customers to finish their shopping and leave. Then she’d make her purchase.

Dark head bent, she browsed the racks of clothing that bristled brown and green and beige. She pulled out a camo jacket and checked its size, fingered a faded black tee. She examined a row of scuffed boots that lined the back wall, looking for a pair in her size. No luck.

She wandered on.

At last, the door dinged behind the last customer. Cassie approached the counter and peered down into the glass case. There it was—her salvation.

“What’cha eyeballing, Cassie?” She glanced up at Big Mike. He grinned around the unlit cigar clamped between his teeth.

“Um…I was just wondering…what does that cost?”

Mike’s gaze followed her pointed finger. His brow furrowed. “That thing?” He gestured at the slim, wooden case that lay open beneath the glass, exposing its shiny insides.

“Yeah. How much you want for it?”

Mike scratched his ample stomach. “Now what in hell would a pretty young thing like you want with that?”

Cassie had known Mike for years. He knew things about her no one else in the entire world knew, including her mother—most especially, her mother—but this was none of his business.

She pulled a wad of cash from the front pocket of her baggy, black jeans and plopped the crumpled mess onto the counter. She dipped her head, a fall of purplish-black hair curtaining her face. “I just want it, that’s all.”

Shaking his shaved head, Mike picked up the cash. “Kids these days, spoiled rotten. Think they gotta have everything they want.” He smiled at Cassie, reached out and ruffled her hair as if she were six, not sixteen. Then he began to count.

Cassie’s hand came up to her mouth. She chewed on a blood-crusted thumbnail.

Mike slid the stack of bills toward her. “Thirty-seven hundred. Ain’t enough, cutie.”

Cassie didn’t know how many times she’d told him not to call her that. It was a lie, and only made her feel even uglier. But she wasn’t going to argue the point today. “How much then?”

“That’s a mint-condition Spencer and Croker, circa 1870. Why it’s worth at least—”

Cassie snatched up the bills, then slapped down her debit card. “This cover it?”

Big Mike sighed. “Aw, come on now, what’ll your mama say if you come home packing that old thing?”

Cassie shrugged her thin shoulders. He knew how things stood with her mother. Why rehash ancient history? “I want it, Mike.” Steel fibers wrapped around her soft voice. “You gonna sell it to me or not?”

Mike’s probing, blue eyes sought out hers. Cassie looked down. Another sigh from the big man, then, “Okey-dokey, cutie, whatever you want.”

Later, out on the street, Cassie clutched her brown-bagged purchase to her chest as she stalked the twilight streets. Her long legs ate up the sidewalk, taking her through the familiar neighborhood of pawn shops, liquor stores, tattoo parlors, and decaying motels.

On the corner of Sixth Street, she slipped inside Bruno’s Barn. The musty smell of old books greeted her like a long-lost friend.

Toward the back, a familiar face peeked around a wall of old paperbacks. Scarlet lips curved up in a smile. “Hello, there.” Smoothing his broomstick skirt, Francis tottered up the aisle. He wrapped his arms around Cassie, package and all, enveloping her in a pungent odor of sweat and old-lady perfume.

Cassie endured the embrace. The old cross-dresser was one of those touchy-feely people who patted, stroked, or hugged almost everyone. Being a regular customer, Cassie had been the recipient of many such hugs.

Francis stepped back. “Looking for something in particular today or just browsing?”

“I’m here to see Bruno. He’s got something for me.”

Francis pursed his lips. “Hmm…I don’t think I care for this…you’re just a baby.”

Cassie ducked her head. “Is he upstairs?”

“Yes, but—”

“I’ll find him.” Cassie slipped around Francis and made her way down the multicolored valley of ceiling-high books, then mounted the steep, narrow stairs set against the back wall. She picked her way through haphazard piles of magazines and books to the makeshift office scrunched into the far corner of the loft.

Bruno looked up from the litter of papers scattered across his desk. “Hey, kid, how’s it going?” A lazy spiral of smoke wafted up from the fat joint resting in the ashtray near his hand. The bluish haze curled lovingly around the Desert Storm vet’s whip-thin body.

“Do you have the stuff?” Cassie asked around her thumb.

“Yeah, I have it. But I ain’t so sure I ought to give it to you.”

Bruno’s bloodshot eyes caught hers. Cassie bowed her head, afraid he would see inside her, see what she had planned, and try to stop her.

She dug into her jeans pocket, “I’ve got money.” She held out the wrinkled hundred-dollar bills. “Here, take it all.”

Bruno took the cash from her hand. He replaced it with a yellowed envelope. “That there’s premium smack, kid. Go easy on it.”

Eyes on the floor, Cassie mumbled a “Thanks,” stuffed the envelope into her back pocket behind her phone and hurried back into the papery maze, away from Bruno’s penetrating gaze. She clattered down the stairs and met Francis at the bottom.

Francis grabbed her arm. “What’d he give you?”

“Nothing.” Heart thudding in her chest, Cassie pulled away and hurried toward the front of the store. The boards groaned behind Cassie as Francis followed in her wake.

“Cassie, please don’t…please…be careful. You don’t know what—” The door to Bruno’s Barn closed behind Cassie, chopping off anything else Francis might have said.

Cassie knew what she had to do, and she needed the heroin to help her accomplish the task. And after tonight, no one would ever laugh at her again. No, they would point at her when she walked by and say how perfect, how pretty she was.

Smiling the tiniest of smiles, Cassie set off down the crumbling sidewalk. Evening bled into night, and as she walked, the streets grew cleaner, the air blew fresher. Streetlights blazed, taxies sped by, horns honked.

As she strode by Starbucks, the door opened and out stepped tiny, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Marla Gibson. Her crowd of chattering hangers-on swarmed out behind her. Cassie ducked her head and lengthened her stride, but not quickly enough to avoid Marla’s sharp eyes.

Marla said something about Bozo the Goth, and all her friends laughed. Cassie’s stomach twisted into tighter knots. All the slimming black in the world hadn’t disguised her problem; she had to fix it!

Zigzagging between cars stopped at a red light, Cassie crossed a side street. Halfway down the block, she turned into the entrance of the building where she lived.

“Good evening, Miss Lawson,” the doorman said as he held open the door.

Cassie smiled. “And a good evening to you, Wilson.” She crossed the expansive lobby and boarded the empty elevator. She punched the button for the top floor.

The doors whooshed closed. Cassie raised her eyes and watched the numbers flit by—2, 3, 4, 5…on and on.

And her mind tumbled back through the years…

The elevator was going down. Five-year-old Cassiopeia Lawson watched the red numbers change, fives beside fours, threes next to sixes, then the single numbers that she could read. “Four, three, two, one…”

With a ding, the metal doors slid open.

Mother’s grip on her hand tightened, and she marched out of the elevator, pulling Cassie along beside her. Out on the busy sidewalk, Mother flagged down a taxi.

“Aren’t you excited, Cassiopeia!” Mother said as she slid into the back seat beside her. “Your very first party.”

“Uh huh,” Cassie said. Back then, she had been an agreeable child; it was later she rebelled.

They drove out of the city and into a neighborhood where sprawling houses dotted a rolling, green landscape. At one of the houses—a red-brick monstrosity—Mother turned her over to a smiling maid and left, promising to be back soon.

The maid led her to a sunny room filled with chattering children, and she in turn left Cassie. And in that room, Cassie experienced her first humiliation, the finger pointing, the sniggering. For the first time, she realized she was different.

Now, the elevator doors parted, bringing Cassie back to the present. Clasping her purchase, she stepped into the small alcove that fronted the door to the only apartment on the floor, the one she shared with her mother. She fitted her key into the lock, then stepped inside.

She heard faint laughter, her mother’s. Deeper rumbling. A man. Mother was entertaining.

Cassie eased the door closed. Hoping she could slip by unnoticed, she trod softly upon the cool, aqua tiles of the foyer. A few more steps and she would be past—

“Cassiopeia, come in here, please.”

Cassie cringed inwardly. She hated meeting Mother’s friends, especially the men. She saw pity in their eyes when they looked at her, and that bothered her far worse than the unbearable teasing she had suffered as a child. And suffered still.

She stepped down into the cavernous living room, her boots clomp-clomping upon the gleaming hardwood floor, and paused there.

Flames danced and popped in the fireplace. A half-empty wine bottle and two glasses sat beside the African figurines precisely grouped on the teakwood cocktail table, behind which her mother lounged upon the sofa beside a tanned, muscled man who didn’t look much older than Cassie. Of course, Victoria Lawson didn’t look much older than Cassie either. Not that she should with all the procedures she’d had over the years: implants here, skin pulled up there, fat sucked out everywhere. She hooked a blonde curl behind a diamond-studded ear, then patted the sofa. “Come sit for a moment.”

Cassie hugged her parcel to her chest. “I’ve got a lot of studying to do. I really should—”

Victoria’s green eyes narrowed. “Just for a minute, Cassiopeia.”

Cassie moved a little deeper into the room, stopping at the edge of the boldly striped rug that underlaid the grouping of furniture hugging the fireplace. Her mother’s boy-toy smiled up at her. His gaze drifted down, beginning a slow perusal of her body. Cassie dropped her eyes. She didn’t want to see his when he reached—

“Bradley, this is my daughter, Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia, Bradley. He’s our newest addition to the firm.”

Still, Cassie didn’t look up. She nodded her head and mumbled a “How-do-you-do.”

“Your daughter?” Bradley asked. “Why, you’re not old enough to be this young lady’s mother.”

He’s a smart one, Cassie thought. Knows just what she wants to hear. “I really need to study, Mother.”

Victoria sighed as if she were disappointed. “If you must, go on then.”

Cassie had done her part and was now being dismissed. Without a backward glance, she hurried from the room into the foyer and down the long, dark-paneled hallway to the farthermost bedroom: her sanctuary.

She locked the door behind her.

The spacious room was a study in black: the walls, carpet, even the rich walnut furniture, various shades of black. Posters of old rock groups—AC/DC, The Stones, Pink Floyd—sheeted the walls, the only colors sailing the ebony seas.

Cassie went into the bathroom, pulled her purchase from the bag, and placed it upon the marble-topped vanity. She flipped up the latch and opened the wooden case. Reverently, she lightly ran her fingers over its contents. Her heart began to beat faster. Soon, she would be pretty. Soon, no one would laugh at her. Soon, she would no longer be different, no longer be ugly.

She reached into her back pocket and tugged out the envelope she’d secreted there earlier. Her iPhone slipped out with it, falling onto the soapstone tiles. She left it where it had hit, face down, and tapped some of the white powder into her cupped palm, held it under her nose and snorted, pulling it in deep. In moments, the warm rush hit her. A sense of well-being flooded her mind.

She slouched down on the toilet seat. Her eyes drifted closed.

And it was the first day of kindergarten. A group of girls joined hands and formed a ring around her. They skipped in a circle, chanting, “Clown feet, clown feet, Cassiopeia’s got clown feet.”

A small Marla Gibson lurched toward her. “Where’d you hide your red nose, Bozo?” she asked, her cheeks dimpling as her perfect, pink lips turned up in a nasty smile. Her hand whizzed upward, wielding a tube of red lipstick that she raked across Cassie’s nose. “Here you go.”

Marla laughed. The other girls joined in.

“Clown feet, clown feet, Cassiopeia’s got clown feet.”

Cassie’s body jerked upright. No more…

She assembled her arsenal: alcohol; needle and strong, nylon thread; fluffy, white towels; and a bottle of ruby-hued nail polish. Next, off came the boots. Cassie kicked the hateful, size-fourteen things away, and tossed damp, black socks into the far corner with them.

And she was seven, sobbing, telling her mother how all the kids at school made fun of her big feet. “Can’t the doctors fix me like they fix you?”

“You have your father’s big, ugly feet, nothing can be done about it,” Mother had said. “You’ll just have to live with them.” She’d raised the newspaper back up between them.

“Mother, please…”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Cassiopeia, quit whining, they’re not that bad. Tell you what, we’ll get you a boob job when you’re older, and no one will even notice your feet then.”

Now, Cassie raked the back of her hand across her wet cheeks. “A boob job won’t fix it, Mother…I’ll fix it…”

She turned to the antique amputation set, lifted out the sharp-toothed bone saw and laid it near at hand upon the countertop. Then she took out a tourniquet and wrapped it above her ankle. Next came the long, slim knife. Cassie doused both it and her foot with alcohol, then propped her hated foot on the side of the bathtub. She laid the blade’s edge against the instep.

“I’ll fix it.”

And slashed.

That wasn’t so bad, Cassie thought as she watched blood well from the deep gash.

She sliced again. And again. The next pass of the knife grated against bone. She dropped the knife into the sink and picked up the bone saw. She splashed alcohol onto its teeth and her bloody foot. “Don’t want an infection.” She giggled.

Cassie slid the saw into the cut. A river of blood pumped out of the gaping valley of flesh and cascaded down the side of the bathtub, creating a red, ever-widening pool upon the pale tiles of the floor. She hadn’t thought there’d be so much blood, not with the tourniquet.

But what was the loss of a little blood? It was a small price to pay for normal feet.

The room grew uncomfortably warm. A heavy fog pushed down upon Cassie, clouding her mind, filling her body with lead. For a moment, she forgot where she was, forgot what she was doing. For a moment, she was lost in a red, hot haze. Then gradually, the throbbing in her wounded foot brought her back to herself.

She pulled the bone saw back into position. She took a deep breath and pushed—and had to bite her lip to keep from screaming. A few more passes of the sharp, serrated teeth, and the front half of her foot plopped onto the floor.

Trembling and weak, Cassie slid off the toilet seat onto the floor. She picked up her foot. As soon as she rested for a minute, she’d cut off the toes and sew them onto her new, smaller foot. She’d polish the nails. Oh, they were going to be so pretty!

But first she had to rest.

Cradling her severed foot to her chest, she leaned back against the toilet and closed her eyes. And as the pool of blood grew wider around her, she heard voices:

Just look at those lovely feet.

They’re so tiny, so delicate.

Perfect feet.

Beautiful feet…

Until she heard no more.

©2023 jai

Featured image via iStock

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