It was the eyes. A pair of eyes that I’d seen before. They were usually hazel with a touch of gold, framed by a feathery fringe of dark lashes and a light dusting of expertly applied green eye shadow. Today, however, they seemed dark and forbidding as they lingered on me like dew on morning grass. For some reason, I felt uncomfortable under that gaze.
They belonged to a friend of mine from high school named Elaine Wells. She was the kind of girl that always turns the boys heads. She would wear the kinds of clothing to school that had them drooling in the hallways, all the while managing, somehow, to pass beneath the radar of teachers and principals alike. Her long hair was that kind of blond that most people mistakenly associate with stupidity and she usually wore it in a fall of soft curls down to the middle of her back. Many of the other girls in my class used to call her “Cheerleader Barbie” behind her back, although Elaine never tried out for the squad.
It always amazed me that she wanted to be my friend. I wasn’t anything like her. In fact, I was almost the dictionary definition of “tom boy.” My own hair was brown and I wore it in a braid to keep it out of my way. My hair hadn’t ever been cut, mainly because my mother didn’t want it cut, so my braid fell all the way to the small of my back. As for the boys, I was more comfortable out in the field with them than anything else. I even managed to get a place on the varsity baseball team after a number of the other players told the coach what an excellent pitcher I was. My usual outfit was probably jeans and a tee-shirt and I was too lean and stringy to turn any heads. The only times I ever wore a dress was for church and once or twice to prom and homecoming. The fact that Elaine and I were friends had earned me the name “Ken,” which I objected uselessly to on several occasions.
After high school, I lost track of Elaine. I’m not even exactly sure where she decided to go to college. I stayed at the local community college, then moved to state university after graduation. I met a guy named John there who seemed to like me for who I was. Eventually, he asked me to marry him and before long we had a mortgage and two kids. A little after that, I had my braid amputated at just below my jawline. My mother wasn’t at all happy, but she capitulated when I told her it was giving me headaches.
It was at the park that I first saw Elaine again. I was seated near the playground watching my offspring climb over one of those metallic constructions with the big curly plastic slides like a pair of ants over a colorful piece of food. She seated herself on a nearby park bench and just stared at me and it was her eyes that told me something was wrong. Just the quality of her gaze said she was angry at me for something and not just angry, envious.
It was by the eyes that I even knew it was Elaine, because she didn’t look a thing like the girl I remembered from high school. Her fall of blond curls was now white as snow and chased with a number of silver threads. She was dressed in something long, black and shapeless. Even the way she carried herself was such a long way from the Elaine I had known that I’d never have realized it was her at all if it hadn’t been for her eyes. Curious, I walked over and seated myself on the other end of the bench.
“That’s you, isn’t it, Elaine?” I asked, although every nerve ending told me I should gather up my children and run. “How’ve you been?”
“Have I done something to offend you?” I tried, turning to her. I was surprised then to see that she was still looking at me and the intensity of her gaze was such that I wanted to scream, something I’d never done before. Her face was a massive network of wrinkles. In just twenty years, she had, somehow, become old.
“No, Alanna,” she said, her voice sounding strained. “You have something that I want.”
“What?” I replied, half shocked half curious.
“Everything,” she said, her gaze leaving me and coming to rest on my kids. Again, my instinct was to gather them up and run, leaving my car, and take the bus home. I fought it. After all, Elaine was my friend.
“Why?” I replied, aghast.
“I made a mistake,” she growled, “and lost it all. My youth, my health, my life, all of it. So, since I knew you were my best friend in school, I thought you might give me yours.” It was then that she favored me with a smile that I knew was meant to be sweet and convincing, the same smile she used when she talked me into wearing a dress and make-up for homecoming. This time, the smile looked hungry to me. It was the sort of smile I would give when facing a buffet after fasting a week.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, edging away from her. What did she mean, I would give her mine. My what? My life?
“Look at you,” she moaned, “You’re in your late thirties and you still look twenty-five. There’s barely a wrinkle on your face. You have a loving, handsome husband who has a decent job and two beautiful children. You have a house, two cars and money in the bank. You have it all. Give it to me.”
“What do you mean, give it to you?” I asked, my heart pounding in my chest, forcing me to my feet.
“Just agree, Alanna,” Elaine whispered. “You want your friend to be happy, don’t you?”
“I’m still your friend, Elaine,” I said, grabbing my purse, “and I’m willing to help you in any way I can. I can’t just give everything to you. I can’t. It’s impossible.”
“Then, I have no choice,” said Elaine, also rising, “I’ll have to take it. I thought you were my friend. I guess I was mistaken.” She turned and walked away and, as she did so, my mouth went so dry that I had to go to the drinking fountain for a drink of water.
After about a minute, I called my kids and we went home. On the way home, a storm blew up out of nowhere, blocking out most of the sunlight in a matter of minutes. We got home and I was in the middle of fixing dinner when there was a knock on the door. Wiping my hands on a dishtowel, I went to answer it.
It was the eyes.