One. Cassie is an ugly girl. A manly, rawboned, odd-angled, horsey girl. A soft, too-big jaw, drooping eyelids, fat under the cheeks that seems to melt into the neck.
Ugly people usually have: haunting eyes, straight white teeth, a good complexion. But not Cassie. She is pale and mauve-colored, with thin brown hair and yellowy teeth—even her eyes are small. And while she isn’t exactly fat, she is large, her body too wide for her head. Her ears stick out like jug handles. She is awkward, unfinished, like the bad clay sculptures the kindergarten kids make.
At school, kids call her The Lump. Her parents call her Babydoll, but they put her class pictures away in a drawer instead of hanging them in the hall with her brother’s.
Two. Cassie can See things. Ever since she was four years old and collapsed under the tree at Aunt Betsy’s Christmas party, told her mother when she came to she saw Uncle Mo’s truck drive into the Platte River, and not an hour later they had a phone call from the police that there had been a bad accident and would Betsy come down and identify the body? Since then, Cassie’s always been able to see things nobody else can, things that make bright flashes in her head and play like a filmstrip over her eyes. It isn’t just seeing things. It’s Seeing Things. She usually faints, and that for sure means that the thing she sees is important and true. Or rather, that it will be true one day. Like when she Sees the dark blue minivan is going to run over her brother’s new puppy, or when she Sees her cousin Dee Dee get her legs blown off in the desert.
The things she Sees are always death or hurt or pain. Her aunt calls it the Lord’s gift, but then why did Reverend Matthews ban her from service after she Saw the grocery store fire while singing in the church choir on Sunday? He thinks it’s a gift from Satan, and Cassie is inclined to agree. Especially because she knows one day she’ll See her own death—and then one day she does.
It happens during Homeroom. She Sees her own body spread-eagled on a patch of grass surrounded by pink and purple flowers, big ones with wide petals. Only, it isn’t quite her. It’s a pretty her, a silver, shining, fair-haired copy of her. But she knows it’s her just the same. And she knows it means she’ll die, and soon.
She throws up on her desk and Mrs. Carver has to get the school nurse. The school and the doctors call the Sight ‘epilepsy’, but she knows it isn’t. It’s a curse, that’s what Cassie thinks. She’s never prevented anything bad from happening. All she can do is watch.
Three. Cassie wants to be pretty, wants desperately to be pretty, would trade away the moon, the sun, and all the oceans to be pretty. Especially now that she knows she’s going to die.
She hits upon the idea of plastic surgery when watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The idea of lying on a bleached silk cushion, Plexiglas covering the top; she would be a delicate doll figure, with small hands and feet and a beautiful face and beatific smile. Her arms would be folded and her eyes closed in rapture, like the picture of St. Catherine in her saints book. People would pass by and speak in worshipful whispers, would say how beloved she must have been—and the echo of her body would be smiling, smiling and waving like a beauty queen wherever it was you went when you died.
Her parents try to grant her wish, but all the doctors say no. The specialists, the plastic surgeons, even the celebrity doctors—they all say no. “No, no, no,” they chant in unison, a Hippocratic chorus. Soon the naysayers crowd into her dreams. They stand strung together, identical and frowning and folded arms, paper doll doctors. And they won’t say yes.
Four. Cassie has blind spots, too. When she gets home from school one day, Cassie’s aunt and her mother are sitting in the living room waiting for her. Her mother is smiling, and her aunt is frowning. There is a strange man with her father in the kitchen, and he is a doctor who has heard all about Cassie and has volunteered to make her pretty.
He’ll do it for free, Cassie’s mother says, holding out her arms to her ugly little girl. Cassie’s heart explodes like trumpets, like fireworks and streamers. She’s going to be beautiful. It suddenly seems okay that she’ll die, now. It suddenly seems like a natural price to pay. She will be a flower, yes, a moonbeam, yes, shining briefly but bright—a silvery, shimmery memory forever.
Oh, child, says her aunt. I wish you wouldn’t. Everyone loves you now. What do you need prettiness for?
Cassie says nothing. She knows she can’t possibly explain. How the love people give you when you’re ugly just isn’t the same.
Oh, hush, says Cassie’s mother. She holds Cassie to her, while her daughter cries without knowing she’s crying. Her face is even uglier with the redness and the squinty eyes and tear tracks. Cassie’s mother tries not to look. She was prom queen once, and she’s still the prettiest cashier at the Safeway. Prettier than most of the other girls twenty years younger. Oh, Babydoll, won’t it be nice, she murmurs into her daughter’s mousy hair. Won’t it be nice.
The doctor is young and good-looking, with long slender hands that will work magic on Cassie. The Doctor has heard from another doctor that Cassie is going to die, and nobody exactly disabuses him of that notion. Everyone in Cassie’s family believes at least a little in her Sight.
The doctor says it will take six months, and does she have that long? Cassie thinks about it, and it feels right to her. So she says yes, and the family echoes her. Yes.
Then he rolls up his sleeves, and Cassie rolls up hers, and they get to work. He breaks her nose, puts in a chin implant, performs eyelid lifts, pins back her ears, plumps her lips up with injections, liposuctions her thighs and gives her breast implants. It is all very painful, but Cassie has a mantra, though she doesn’t know the word. I will be a swan, she says, over and over, when the pain gets so bad she feels she might black out. I will be a swan, I will be a swan, I will be a swan.
Five. Cassie is a little in love with her doctor. This is one of her blind spots. He tells her that he will throw her a party when the bandages come off, just like Cinderella. She tries to tell him Cinderella was always pretty, but he cuts her off and smiles wider. You’ll be the belle of the ball, he says.
No one has ever checked on the doctor’s credentials. He just showed up on Cassie’s doorstep, and the family has attributed it to Providence. If anyone had checked, they would have noticed he was no longer allowed to practice medicine. If anyone had checked, they might have seen some other scary things. But no one has checked.
Six. Cassie is terrified of mirrors. But, finally, the bandages come off. And Cassie gets a haircut and highlights and her teeth whitened and even a pedicure and a manicure, and the doctor pays for it all. But no mirrors, not yet. Tonight is the night Cassie will be reborn, briefly, before she dies. A phoenix in reverse. Tonight is the night of her unveiling at the doctor’s house.
Cassie puts on the dress first. It’s a new silver lace froth, long and grown up, and the heels are pale pearl. She is leaving looking in the mirror for last. She is terrified of still being ugly. The doctor’s nice blue eyes widen in appreciation. You look like a beautiful fairy princess, he says. Cassie snorts—she’s not an idiot—but then she realizes, she might. She might be that lovely now. The thought makes her tingle and light up from head to toe, like fireflies are dancing all over her skin.
The doctor puts his hands on her bare shoulders and gently spins her around, until she’s facing the full-length mirror. And then Cassie forgets all about dying, forgets about her fears and her family and everything but the floating girl before her in the glass. That’s me, she whispers, and the doctor laughs. You’re my very finest creation, he says. My Galatea.
He leads Cassie into the backyard, tells her the guests will be arriving soon. Will you dance with me first, he asks, and though she’s never danced before, she knows she can. She’s not afraid. Not even when the doctor puts his arm around her waist, and her breath catches. She ignores the strange warmth in her blood and concentrates on stepping in the right places. She’s so beautiful, she realizes, is it any wonder he would want to dance with her?
And as they dance he starts to sing to her, softly, Oh, you must have been a beautiful baby, you must have been a beautiful child…
Just now it seems possible, seems true, and Cassie smiles to think of her own history rewritten. She looks down, shy in her new skin now, and sees her pearl shoes sink into a green patch of grass, edged by pink and purple flowers. Big flowers. Her vision goes black for a moment, then as her sight ebbs back in waves she looks up, really looks, right into the doctor’s nice blue eyes. They have gone soft, unfocused, pupils wide, and she sees her new pretty face reflected in the empty blackness.
She twists away, tries to run, shedding one shoe; but he catches her hard by the wrist and throws her to the ground. Please don’t hurt me, she says, but she knows he will hurt her, hurt her so badly she will never get up again. She’s been resigned to her death, but now that she knows how she’ll die it seems wrong, it seems bad and unfair and a cheat. And so she cries for the beautiful little girl she had living inside of her all along, like a wood spirit trapped in a tree.
Seven. Cassie is the girl in the flowers, and she sobs and sobs as the man kneels stiffly down beside her to whisper the rest of his song in her pinned-back ear. You must have been a beautiful bay-ay-bee, he sings softly, his fingers long and slender and working fast.
Photo by Michelangelo Carrieri