Small and Red

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Amanda Divine


Maude looked down at the spot on the end of her nose, closing her left eye and pressing her tongue into the sharp bottom edges of her upper teeth. It really is bigger, she thought to herself. Definitely. No doubts.

She had noticed it last week, though it had probably been there beneath the surface for months, planning its attack through the layers of her skin with subtle alacrity. A spreading red web of capillaries, the spot remained only the size of the body of a mosquito dead of old age, not the broad spreading force of a hand. The spot didn’t itch, or feel, to her finger, any different than any other freckle or smudge on her skin, but she had the distinct impression that it was numb to the touch of her finger. Hard to tell, though, she thought, rubbing the whole bulb of her nose with the pad of a forefinger. She half expected to feel a massive heat arising from the area, erupting in blood and fire and covering her hand, the force dripping down toward her elbow.

But it didn’t. It was just a spot. She had to remember that it was just a spot. So what if she hadn’t noticed it before—it couldn’t have just appeared; nor could it have grown to that size in just a week, if it had started out as something as simple as a bruised pore, or anything else so mundane.

Her vision was fogged as she leaned close to the mirror, eyeball to nose as much as possible within the dimensions of bathroom and glass. The spot had most likely started as a tiny red dot, a feature she’d occasionally noticed in her childhood upon the cushy areas of her palms, but had departed along with the memories. Branching from the tiny spot were two, no, three, she counted, tiny lines that bent slightly before disappearing into the dark tan of her skin. A baby octopus with only two arms, waving at me, she considered, or a period with wings. She stuck out her tongue, biting softly in the middle, and brushed her hair out of her face. Enough.

The next day she counted four lines, each starting to curl as it lengthened. She sighed as she counted again, then pressed her nose into the mirror and stared into her own eyes. Tomorrow, she mouthed, pressure pain building in the flesh and cartilage, tomorrow, it’ll be gone. Just like that. She certainly wasn’t going to believe that it would keep on growing, at least at the same rate. It was ridiculous. It was just a mark from where she must have scratched it in her sleep, damaging the blood vessels but nothing on the surface. Like a pin prick. But how could she have done that in her sleep? She shook her head, slowly, letting the hair tickle the bridge of her nose. She would have to think no more about it—it was just a mark on her nose. Appearance be damned. And if anyone at the office looks at me funny…

On Friday the spot had spread and Maude could see it with either eye, the red marks reaching horizontally across the front, maintaining more width than height, making her feel like a lumbering bull. She was constantly rubbing the spot now, feeling the flesh dimple into the cartilage like it always had, running taut finger skin over the tight rims of her nostrils. It had occurred to her that this continuous touch might be some of the cause of the mark, but she couldn’t help it. Her finger and thumb prodded and petted without reason, following the air to her nose like wisps of cobweb. Besides. Her fingers would have made her whole nose red, not just a thick line of spreading capillaries. At least it’s Friday. And on Fridays, most people were out of office, and there was no Ray to assault her cubicle with his constant coffee fumes and that horrible mug and say something like—Hey, Maude, have you thought about getting that checked? Ray, with a puffy mole just under his eye that Maude would swear he had to trim hourly, was really in no position to point out infrequencies on anyone’s face.

The lines still spread out from the original dot, still on the right end of her nose, but just a hint bigger now. The lines were pencil lead thin, waving across to connect the faintly unsymmetrical halves of her nose, curling around but never entirely, branching into new lines but never crossing back on themselves. Never repeating the available space on her skin, but ranging across as much distance as they could. The upward lines were still short, as if the force of gravity were too strong for their featherweight.

Saturday noonish, when Maude finally dared to crawl out of bed, the lower lines, as if to prove the gravity theory, had advanced across the bottom tip of her nose and broached the skin of her philtrum. Her heart beat slowly, seeming to pause in anticipation of each message to her brain, while she felt along the new lines, and imagined a new variation of texture, but knew that her skin was still smooth. The growth, if she could call it that, was two-dimensional. Her heart sped up a notch. What if the third dimension goes down, what if it’s eating into the stuff below my skin? Cupping her hand around the end of her nose, nearly frightened that it might fall off, Maude shuffled back to bed. A package of Nyquil and the soap channel kept her out of it for most of the day.

In the evening, she washed her face, scrubbing the end of her nose for whole minutes with soap and a washcloth. It’s hideous. Maude wished she hadn’t slept all day, as she could have been calling the doctor. Is it serious? What is it? Will it stop? It has to stop, don’t be silly. When will it stop, Doctor? Doctor? Her list of questions grew as she imagined scenarios in the doctor’s office. One of the worst that came to mind was the doctor telling her that everything was fine, nothing to be worried about, her nose is normal, while never looking her in the face. He would look at his chart, the poster behind her head, her sneakers, but never once look her in the eye while he told her there was nothing wrong. Meanwhile, in her imagination, she could see the red web growing across her entire face, reflected in part by the doctor’s glasses.

After her wash, Maude dressed in some slumpy clothes—jeans and a T-shirt that she could practically sleep in—and drove two blocks to the grocery. She couldn’t imagine walking all that distance, having to place her hands, having to avoid her nose and the people passing by. The clothes themselves were for hiding in, a retreat against the stares of other customers, an excuse to look at the floor. She didn’t even want to go out at all, but her reasoning was inexcusable. And she was entirely out of milk.

At the store, Maude followed the lines of the squares, glancing up only to the bottoms of displays so she could turn corners properly. The dairy department was not nearly direct enough, not nearly close enough. Her skin was chilled beneath the airy shirt, and she crossed her arms and hunched her shoulders even more, wishing she had brought a sweatshirt to protect her arms. She risked a glance up the aisle, the yellow glow of the milk shelves looming backward with every squeaky step Maude took. It’s so far away. Mid-step, Maude almost paused. She would never make it. There was no one else in the aisle; Maude knew they were avoiding her. Like the plague. Ohmygod… What if it really is the plague? Maude covered her mouth, her eyes widening. She glanced back over her shoulder, calculating distance. She had come so far, it was too late to go back.

Maude covered her eyes. It was entirely ridiculous. She couldn’t even buy milk on a Saturday night, horrifying herself with what was very unlikely. It’s Saturday night. Who shops on a Saturday night? Of course no one’s in this aisle. Maude shoved her hands in her pockets, her nose cooling again from the absence of protective appendages, and started walking again to the milk.

The return came much faster, her hands occupied with the cold jug, her eyes allowed to play over the items on the shelves, pretending to shop. There was a short line at the checkout, only one checker on duty. Maude stood behind a stooped old man with a case of beer, who in turn stood behind a large woman writing a check for a huge stack of frozen entrees. Maude stared at the woman’s ankles, which extended out of pink slippers into, at some point, her calves. Maude’s eyes traveled jerkily to the candy shelves and back to the old man. He had placed himself in the exact center between the two sets of candy shelves, most likely unknowingly and habitual. His head was down as well, his plaid flanneled shoulders just slightly lopsided by the weight of his purchase. Maude looked up his back, at how sharp his shoulder blades looked, pushing out of his skin, at the porous and wrinkly surface of the back of his neck. He was mostly bald on the top of his head, with normal grey wisps at the sides, but in small, sparse patches on the top, his hair growth continued unevenly.

Maude transferred the milk to her other hand, almost dropping the jug when she tried to unclench her fingers from around its cold handle. The woman at the head of the line finished her transaction and carted away eight or so plastic bags of food, stepping so slowly that Maude thought even the old man would pass her on his way out.

The checker was a young man; too greasy. It’s how I feel. I wish I’d showered, thought Maude when she looked at his hair. He was easy to look at, like the woman and old man, because they weren’t looking at her. In fact, the checker wasn’t even looking at the old man as he took the wad of bills, glancing at the hands that paid him and for a long time at the register itself, but not really looking. This may be easier than I thought, thought Maude, but I really, really want to be home. Where no one can see me and this hideous thing. She started to rub her nose again, hoping the spreading itself wasn’t visible, that no one could see the lines actually moving, but the weight of the jug stopped her. It was too much effort to take her other hand out of her pocket either, where it refolded and gripped the dollar bills.

Maude handed the boy the money, and watched the milk as he hauled it to the end of the stand. She couldn’t tell if he was looking at her or not. And that was the worst of it, that she knew she felt like this for nothing, that she wasn’t ugly, she just had a mark on her nose. She could say she walked into a screen door, if anyone asked. She’d rather be clumsy than ugly. Not that anyone was going to ask. No one was that rude. Except for Ray, but by Monday the thing would be gone and she wouldn’t have to worry about it any more. Guuhhh, Maude sighed, expelling breath that she knew smelled rotten. She had passed the checker and was on her way out the door. It was over. She could practically trot out the door with her milk, and be in her own car until she was safe at home. Maude lifted her chin a few inches, head almost level. She could see her reflection approaching in the automatic doors. It didn’t look so bad, just a red mark on her nose. She could live with that. She nodded to her reflection as the doors opened, missing the image of red lines branching over the bridge of her nose, feeling a bit freer on her way home.

Behind Maude, the checker rubbed at the growing red spot on his neck and leaned against the counter. He hated this job, this life, where he had to face so many people every day.

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Amanda Divine (adivine1[at]hotmail.com) is not an alcoholic, in jail, or eighty years old with 300 cats, but instead maintains a husband and three jobs in the Tri-Cities, WA, USA. She has work appearing in Northwest Boulevard and Comic News Japan, and is currently up late working on a novel.

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