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Shining and Swimming

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My palms were clammy, and I didn’t think I could find my voice if I tried. My brain was locked in my skull, unable to reach any other part of my body and control it, only perceive. I observed my clammy hands with the same level of detachment that I had for the party around me. The only organ my brain could consult were my eyes, but I could not even make them close, or move my gaze away. But whatever they saw, they carried dutifully back to my brain—making nightmares for later.

Tormenting images of Elizabeth with Blair. Blair sitting next to her on the couch, so close their entire bodies were pressed together. For the first hour, Elizabeth kept looking over at my corner, locking eyes with me even as she left her hand on Blair’s bare knee, her long fingers running down Blair’s thigh and lingering while her gray eyes kept mine. Then, just a second later, she threw her head back and laughed at something Blair said. The way Blair looked at Elizabeth’s exposed neck, stretched out, she eyes feasting on the flesh and the diamond necklace equally with the hunger of a vampire. Like a vampire, her presence paralyzed me as she sucked Elizabeth away.

I was still in the corner I put myself in. No one Elizabeth invited had bothered to talk to me and I did not want to intrude. They were all friends already. I was just the pale girl in the corner that was there when they came and would be there when they left, like the chair I sat on, only the dimmed lights of the living room and the unflattering blue light of my phone to illuminate me. My thumb scrolled through, though I wasn’t looking down.

“I love this song!” Blair shouted as the music changed to something loud but not so upbeat as the one before. She stood up from the sofa. I forgot how tall she was. With her stiletto heels, she was even taller, her legs even longer, and her skirt even shorter. “Lizzie we have to dance!” she declared. She held her hands out to Elizabeth who flinched a little at being called “Lizzie.”

She looked up at the floor of people already dancing between the couch and my chair. For an instant, her gray eyes bore into mine, but her expression was unreadable. “Sorry love, I don’t know if—”

“C’mon!” Blair goaded. She grabbed Elizabeth’s hands before she offered them and pulled her up by the arms. Elizabeth was dressed at least more casually than Blair. She only wore a slim black pants and a flowing black top, suiting her and her age.

I had been kicking myself all night. Elizabeth told me that tonight was going to be a laid-back affair. “Just a few good friends,” she said. I threw on a pair of nice jeans (I was still on the clock, technically), a gray tank top, my chunky off-white cardigan and tennis shoes. I knew I wouldn’t fit in with all of Elizabeth’s rich, model friends, but I would at least be presentable. I “looked comfortable” Blair noted when the initial introductions were made.

What was I still doing here? Adele was asleep, I had put her to bed myself, but there Elizabeth was saying “Jane, why don’t you come back down when you’re done? Have a little fun for once, Jane.”

Once Blair pulled Elizabeth onto the floor, Elizabeth fell easily into swaying to the song. Blair slung her arms around Elizabeth’s neck and Elizabeth’s hands spanned her waist. Their hips moved perfectly, hypnotically in time.

Blair said something I lost in the music.

Elizabeth threw back her head again.

Blair pulled her arms tighter around her neck. She and Elizabeth were nose to nose. Blair closed her eyes, entranced by the music and Elizabeth. Elizabeth looked at Blair, now that she thought no one was looking, with a tender smile that spread slowly from the center of her lips out to her dimples.

No.

Blair’s lashes fluttered open and she saw the way Elizabeth looked at her.

I would not stay in this corner any longer. I would not be just a fixture in this room to these people Elizabeth invited, to Elizabeth. Maybe it was just one big game of chicken over my dignity: would I walk or wait for her to come over and talk to me, to dismiss me.

The song changed again, something slower.

Elizabeth and Blair slowed down; Elizabeth’s hands fell from her waist to her skinny hips. They pressed their foreheads together.

There was a door right next to me. It led right to a hall and then the stairs that went to my bedroom. Why didn’t I leave earlier?

I did leave then. It took only one more second of seeing Elizabeth and Blair, foreheads, noses, hips, pressed together, breathing together like they wanted to melt into each other, for my mind to regain its control over my body. I turned off my phone and shoved it into the shallow pocket of my sweater. I closed the door behind me and set off down the dark corridor guided by memory alone. The determined gait of my walk jostled my phone out of my pocket. The thud it made on the carpet caught me by surprise. I stooped to pick it up when I heard the door to the living room open and close, the same slow song as before lingering heavily in the still air.

When I stood, Elizabeth was there in front of me, offering her hand, as if she had not just been pressed against Blair Ingram. She felt around on the wall for a second before flipping on the light switch. The hall was suddenly much brighter than it was, and the living room had been. We both blinked like baby deer.

“What’s up?” she asked.

I could not say anything—the same paralysis as before prevented me. Not that I knew how to answer such an inane question. “What’s up? You just made me watch ten minutes of you grinding on a girl a decade younger than you, which I can even fault you for because I want you to do the same thing to a woman fifteen years younger than you.” I shrugged.

“You should come back to the party,” she said.

I shook my head. “No ma’am, but thank you.”

“You should have come out of your corner and mingled a little, or talked to me,” she continued. “Why didn’t you talk to me all night?” I was baffled by the hurt in her voice and the way her chic eyebrows pushed together, forming a wrinkle of deep concern.

My throat constricted and all I could think of was being stuck in my chair in the corner, unable to even look away. “I didn’t know what to say,” I choked out over the lump forming in my throat. “And you were with…. people.”

Elizabeth scrunched up her nose and made a playful look of disgust. “Come on Jane, that’s—” Her thought seemed to stop there. Her expression melted back into one of concern. “You look different since I’ve come back.”

Despite the interrogation, the sentence put me more at ease because it was not about the party and my leaving it and I could combat her studying, piercing looks. I pushed my wispy hair behind my ear. “You weren’t gone long, ma’am. How much could have changed really?”
How much could have changed really?

She smiled then bit her lip. “I guess you’re right. Maybe it’s a new diet?” She tried out the word like she was teasing me. She knew most of the time I just ate what Adele ate, not wanting to inconvenience the cook to make two meals.

I shook my head. A six-year-old’s diet hardly changed.

“Been hitting the gym then?” She punched my arm with each fist playfully.

I tried to suppress a bubbling giggle. “No ma’am.”

“Well, whatever you’re doing, it’s working,” she said broadly. Her gray eyes sparkled, but the line of concern above her brows remained. “What have you been doing?”

“How about my job?” I said with just the right mix of dry wit and bright smile to convince to her let it alone.

She stepped back, hands up in surrender. “Alright.” She studied me for a moment longer and I could feel the power of her presence begin to bind me again. Sometimes she was fun single-mom Elizabeth and sometimes she was multi-billionaire CEO Elizabeth and I was never prepared for the shift. “God,” she chuckled. She was back to being Adele’s mother in an instant. Her voice was soft and fond. “Jane, you’re so pale I swear you could glow in the dark. You do know that you can still do your job and take Adele outside? I’d actually encourage it.”

I smiled graciously as blood rushed to my face. I had gotten out to a good lead, but I think Elizabeth was winning this one. “You’re sure you’re alright?” she asked.

“Don’t you have guests?”

“They won’t miss me for five minutes. Blair and I—“ Elizabeth pursed her lips, like she did with Adele sometimes. “You just look… tired, depressed, frankly.” She crossed her arms, going into full blown mom mode.

“I’m fine” I insisted. “And you’re right, I am tired.”

She waited for me to elaborate. I didn’t. I couldn’t. There it was. She said it herself. “Blair and I.” My stomach plummeted to my feet.

“Jane you look upset.”

“I’m not upset,” I said hastily, and a little shrilly. “I swear, I’m fine” My ever-constricting throat made my words break and the burning that spread over my skin reached my eyes. They were too dry. They itched. I blinked several times and hoped Elizabeth would think it was just the bright light behind her.

She tilted her head to the side in an attempt to be charming. “So, you aren’t going to come back to the party with me?”

“No ma’am,” I said, an awkward laugh bursting through the lump in my throat.

“It’ll make you feel better. Or you can just tell me what’s wrong. You can cry in front of me, Jane, I know you’re upset.” By the end of the sentence, she was no longer warm or smiling.
She caught me. I could do nothing but let the welled-up tears spill over. I sniffed loudly, a desperate plea for my dignity.

She took my arm, which hung limply at my side. For a dreadful moment, I thought she was going to lead me back into the room, but she took off further down the hall. She opened a random door, it led to a linen closet. “What are you doing?” I asked, finally.

“I’m afraid one of our guests might wander out and I don’t want them to see you like this.”

“You’d rather they find us in a closet together?”

“Tell me, Jane, what’s wrong?” She began to back into the closet, but I couldn’t take it. Not after I had spent the evening as furniture and had to witness Blair acting… so explicitly toward Elizabeth.

“Ms. Rochester,” I said, trying and failing to tug my arm from her grasp. “Please, I really think I just need to go.”

“She kept my wrist in her grip, her eyes grew wide. “Promise you’ll come tomorrow night again, after your put Adele to bed. It will be my special project to make sure you have a good time. I want you to be happy, Jane.” Like tonight’s invitation, it was not a request.

I looked her straight in the eyes, though my vision blurred with tears that fell more freely than before. “I will,” I said.

Just like that, she released my wrist and began stalking down the hall, toward to party.

When she let go, I had fully intended to flee up the stairs and to my bedroom, but her abrupt changes never failed to stun me. I stood in the illuminated hall watching her go back to Blair and crying, still crying.

“Jane,” she said urgently. She spun around so fast, I did not have time to conceal my tears. She paced a few steps toward me before repeating in a lower, more tender voice than before, “Jane.”

I never knew what she wanted of me. I felt like she wanted me to divine paragraphs of meaning from the single, repeated word.

I could not. I shook my head and pressed my fists to my eyes so that I could not look at Elizabeth Rochester anymore, and she could not look at me. But my mind conjured up her round, sparkling eyes, her slightly agape red lips, her heaving chest. Why couldn’t she just leave me alone?

She took a long, steady breath. And I heard three receding steps. Then, “Goodnight Jane.”