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A Trick of Light

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Charlotte had been worried that they were going to check her credentials when she applied for the tutoring job but they didn’t. She had hoped they wouldn’t. Part of the application process included tests in the subjects you were applying for and Charlotte knew that even people with college degrees didn’t always know the subjects they’d paid money to learn. A candidate who knew their stuff was worth hiring whatever their background and if they were also smart enough to lie in their application, then the tutoring centre could politely pretend it was true.

Not that Charlotte hadn’t gone to college, she just hadn’t finished. She’d done every single required class for her major but only half of the other credits needed to graduate. By then, Charlotte had spent three years and signed a lot of loans and was done trying. Now a woman in her thirties, adult Charlotte was angry nobody had been watching over college Charlotte. Adult Charlotte was also impressed that she’d gotten that far—even followed by a couple months to get certified as a CNA—considering how completely stoned or drunk she was most of the time.

All that to say that enough had happened between when young Charlotte would have earned those degrees and now, that when the tutoring centre called her to offer a job, she’d thought they had the wrong number.

It wasn’t like it was a full-time job, nothing Charlotte did was, but it meant she could dial back on some of the side gig jobs a little. It was nice. Charlotte had a schedule, her own room in an apartment, a month ago she got her one-year chip and maybe soon she’d even be able to open a savings account. A shining ribbon of possibility was strung through her days, which is probably why she didn’t panic when she slipped up in front of a student.

Zoe was smart, sometimes unsettlingly smart, but even the smartest kids ended up in tutoring to shore up subjects they didn’t shine in if their families had the money for it. Zoe was, as she’d told Charlotte while rolling her eyes, “A comfortable B in writing, and colleges want an A.” She quickly became one of Charlotte’s favourite students. Her writing was solid, she just hadn’t learned to edit yet.

The two were huddled over a red-lined essay one afternoon, Charlotte’s pale, amber-brown fingers darting across the page, showing where two paragraphs could be swapped to smooth out a transition. She’d let down her guard and was tired, so when she gestured the chunks of text moved, changing places like an educational animation. After a horrified pause, Charlotte slapped her hands over the page. Guiltily, she met Zoe’s eyes, which had gone wide before narrowing in the sly way that always meant trouble in teenagers. Charlotte took her hands from the paper, revealing the paragraphs in their original position. With a smile, Zoe casually leaned back in her chair, playing with the charms that looped through one of her wrapped braids.

“I see what you mean, Miss Flores. Thank you for explaining it so clearly.” She pointed at another section of the essay. “What about this? I don’t get exactly how this needs to be fixed.”

 By then, Charlotte had collected herself. She used her red pen and her hands and no tricks as she explained the next set of edits. To her credit, when she realised she wasn’t going to get a rise out of Charlotte, Zoe returned her attention to the session and seemed to have a good grasp of the concepts by the end. Even so, Charlotte felt uneasy and had trouble concentrating with the rest of the day’s students. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Zoe so much as she didn’t trust herself. She hadn’t been this sober or stable for a very long time and felt like she was always low-key waiting for the other shoe to drop. She hoped Zoe wouldn’t bring the incident up again but knew the teen wasn’t going to let it go.


Before going to her evening gig, Charlotte stopped at her apartment for something to eat. The woman she rented her room from, Bonnie, was a nice enough person who was probably never going to put Charlotte on the lease. Bonnie was also Charlotte’s sponsor in group and Charlotte credited her current sobriety with the fear of disappointing her own personal bogeyman: a petite white lady in her early 50s who was blonde going platinum, twice divorced and somehow able to rent a two-bedroom apartment despite having no obvious job. Charlotte had incurred Bonnie’s wrathful disappointment exactly twice and never wanted to experience it again. She’d been sober before but this time she was sober with a vengeance.

Charlotte grabbed one of her pre-made sandwiches from a clearly labelled tub in the fridge and brought it to her room. She took bites while changing out of her work clothes, listening to a ‘90s girl-pop playlist that felt like it belonged on a CD that had hearts drawn on it in Sharpie. Thanks to hand-me-downs from others in group, she’d cobbled together a decent Lady Teacher wardrobe, but her own clothes felt better in every way. Charlotte thought about the evening’s gig for a moment before picking out black leggings, a tie-dyed soft mesh tunic and a deep pink cropped sweater that read “Muñeca” in neon sign-style letters.

The leggings had been one of Charlotte’s first indulgences once she’d had a steady paycheck. They were as thick and opaque as pants, hiding panty lines and leg hair while never bagging at the knees or wearing thin where her thighs touched. They were even the right length for her short legs. Charlotte had four pairs and felt like a king.

With another twenty minutes before she had to leave, charlotte queued up a YouTube makeup playlist and practised, sitting cross-legged in front of the full-length mirror propped up against a wall. Each step the influencer took for her “Summer Fuego” look, Charlotte copied. But, instead of sponsored eyeshadow palettes and three shades of foundation, Charlotte used light. A sweep of her fingers or a moment of concentration and her face was painted in perfect, flawless layers. The video ended and Charlotte paused the playlist, not looking away from her reflection.

She tried to hold what she looked like in her mind, then closed her eyes. Keeping her eyes closed, Charlotte scooted around to face away from the mirror. Opening her eyes, she counted to ten and turned back to her reflection, peering. The appearance of the makeup had held, sort of. Like always, her facial features seemed distorted. Her nose was someone’s idea of her nose, her eye colour was wrong and there was an overall sense of uncanny valley realness.

With a sigh, Charlotte relaxed and her face swam up through the illusion, minus the “Summer Fuego” look but with all of its pieces their familiar selves. To cheer herself up, Charlotte did her favourite exercise, running her fingers over her hair while it changed colour. It was an equally embarrassing and joyful trick because she was absolutely imitating a scene from The Craft and it made her feel very cool but very old.

Even if she couldn’t make something stick unless she was looking at it, Charlotte consoled herself by remembering that if she was looking at a thing she could get it perfect. Her phone buzzed with a text and she grabbed it while she stood, dropping it on the bed while she tied a scarf over her hair and buckled on a grey leather fanny pack. Another, more insistent, buzz rattled her phone and Charlotte texted back while slipping on her shoes.

“Down in jiff ei”

A typing icon popped up, cycling for a few seconds before disappearing. Charlotte laughed as she went out the door. The idiots could try to lecture her on time tables all they wanted, but they couldn’t do the job without her.