The following is an excerpt from the novel Forever 51.
At the counter of Tropi-Tan, Veronica eyed the polished, caramel skin of the young blonde as she rushed through the details of their transaction. The girl remained oblivious to her gaze, even as she placed cash and a “buy three get one free” redemption card into her hand. When their fingers touched, Veronica could feel herself slipping into self-will. It was never a good idea to try something new when she was hungry.
“Your hands are really cold. Are you sick?” asked the girl.
“Besides the fact that I will be wearing a bright yellow bridesmaid’s dress tomorrow night, I’m fine.” She tapped her fingers on the counter and forced a smile. “What can I say? Cold hands, warm heart.”
The girl chuckled, exposing her freshly bleached teeth. “Is this your first-time spray tanning?”
“Yes.” Veronica’s brows knitted. “Is that a problem?”
“Well, you don’t look like you get out in the sun much, which I guess is a good thing, you know with cancer and all that.” The girl nervously flipped long strands of flat-ironed hair off her tanned shoulders, revealing her name tag—“Brittany,” scrolled in thick Sharpie, with a heart dotting the “I.” “We close in thirty minutes, but I’m pretty sure you’ll have time to dry. Anyway, um, here’s a shower cap, nose plugs and some goggles. Did you by chance bring your swimsuit?”
“I don’t swim.” Veronica deadpanned.
“Um…I…it’s not a problem.” Brittany laid a pair of paper briefs on the counter. “Take your pick of any room and I’ll be down in a minute.”
“I imagine that you will.” Veronica swept the items into her oversized purse and sauntered down the empty hallway, eyeing each identical room along the way. Halo-blue tanning beds. Weird black hoses hanging from the walls. Mirrors everywhere.
This was not what she signed up for.
“Which room has the machine? I don’t see it.” Irritation was building.
“It’s out on repair. I’ll be right with you.”
“Oh.” Veronica felt trapped and uncomfortable with the idea of a younger, more attractive woman witnessing her exposed, aged flesh in this last-ditch attempt at vanity. A hot flash rose inside her, beading her upper lip in sweat. She hadn’t eaten in a week, which didn’t bode well for anyone.
“Don’t worry about it.” Brittany called out from the front counter. “I’ve seen a ton of naked women and a lot of them were way bigger than you.”
Veronica sucked her teeth, her thoughts careening between escape and homicide. But there was no turning around now. It would look stupid and prudish if she left after cash and paper panties had been exchanged. It didn’t help that they were closing in thirty minutes and the wedding was tomorrow night. Fuck it.
She shuffled inside one of the tiny rooms at the end of the hall, closed the door and bolted the lock. The fluorescent bulb flickered its sick light, illuminating a compact compressor, a cedar bench, and a long thin mirror so patrons could observe their sticky, sunless metamorphosis.
Or not. Veronica yanked a long trail of paper towels from the roll by the sink and tucked it in at the top edge of the mirror. She shucked off her yoga ensemble, hiked up her two-ply big-girl panties, and tucked a prayer between the despondent folds of her cleavage. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…
“Ma’am? Are you ready in there?”
Brittany breezed into the room, flipped on the compressor and assessed Veronica’s dry, crepe-like skin. “Did you exfoliate today?” She inspected Veronica’s calves. “Or shave?”
What was this, the Tannish Inquisition? Veronica stiffened – escape impossible, homicide tempting – as her sponsor Paula’s voice ricocheted through her mind with the old, familiar acronym: HALT!
Veronica forced herself to cycle through the questions.
Are you hungry? Obviously. It had been over a week since she’d eaten – and here was this dumb, succulent dimwit dangling right in front of her. Yes. Patient intake is down, Ethel refuses to die and they boxed up Phil before I could get to him. I’m pretty fucking hungry, okay?
“No,” she said to Brittany with deliberate calm. “Was I supposed to?” She glanced down at the downy hair on her legs, her milk-colored skin road-mapped with thick blue veins and cottage cheese curves, and longed to shield the world from their awfulness.
Brittany didn’t quite roll her eyes. “Um, yeah. It’s like spray tanning 101. I’m not sure what’s gonna happen, but I’m guessing that the hair will look darker than it already does. Do you want to shave real quick? We have razors.” Brittany reached for the door handle. “You don’t have to do your underarms, but it wouldn’t hurt.”
Are you angry? Veronica bit back her first unkind reply. I’m menopausal. I’ve been fifty-one forever. I’m ALWAYS angry, and this isn’t helping.
“Let’s just get this over with, shall we?” Veronica tucked her long, salt and pepper curls beneath the plastic bag, inserted the nose plugs and for once felt gratitude for the invisibility that middle age afforded.
“Are you sure?” Brittany’s skepticism was writ large between her penciled eyebrows.
“Yes. It’s a long dress. I assure you, no one will notice my hairy legs.”
“Okay. There might be some darker areas and streaking but it will be way better than what’s going on right now. Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.” Veronica’s arms dropped to her side as the sepia spray settled on her pale form, relieved to have finally finished the gauntlet of inanities and commenced the task at hand. Ten more minutes, she promised herself. And no more humiliating questions.
“Can you lift your boobs for just a quick sec so I can spray under them?”
Oh, for Christ’s –
Are you lonely? Veronica forcefully interrupted herself, and opened her eyes to maneuver her breasts out of the way. To the pit of my soul.
Brittany squatted to spray Veronica’s legs and feet. “With your receipt from tonight’s visit, you can get a half price bikini wax at the place next door.” She nodded in the direction of the paper panties. “You really need to do something about that.”
Are you tired? Veronica wanted nothing more than to wrap her long fingers around the girl’s neck and squeeze, but instead opted for a nice, deep, relaxing breath. Are you kidding me? I’ve been awake for over a century. Hell yes, I’m tired.
Brittany leaned over, exposing her perfect braless cleavage. An illegible tattooed name was scrolled over her heart.
She needed to humanize her. “How old are you, Brittany?”
“Nineteen.” Brittany stood. Stepping back to assess her handiwork, her face couldn’t hide the disappointment. “I think this is as good as it’s gonna get.”
Veronica removed the nose plugs and inhaled an intoxicating mix of coconut tanning spray with an undertone of Brittany’s warm, flowing, morphine-free blood. God, she smelled delicious.
“Do you enjoy being nineteen?” Veronica stepped closer and tongued the increasing sharpness of her incisors. Like a teenage boy standing at the chalkboard with a boner, she tried to squelch her unnatural instincts with visions of her ten-year sobriety chip and the prospect of an ethical meal in her immediate future. Ethel couldn’t hold out forever. And Frank was waiting for her at home.
Ten years. Ten minutes. Hungry – lonely – angry – tired – but still working the program, dammit.
“Yeah, I guess so. But I’d rather be twenty-one so I could party without all the hassle.” Brittany bent over and flipped the power switch. “Aw, shit. I think my period just started. Do you by chance have a tampon?”
Veronica stifled a laugh. “I haven’t had a period in years.” Menstruating seemed like such an innocent, childish thing to do. Poor little girl.
Brittany all but pouted her agreement. “You’re so lucky!”
“Yeah, it’s such a relief.” Veronica grinned, the tension draining from her shoulders. She was done with the tan, self-control and sobriety intact – and permanently excused from the need to plug up her privates.
“You should smile more, you know? It makes you look less angry.” Brittany paused at the door. “Or there’s always Botox.”
Veronica’s smile withered. Her stomach growled.
“Wait a second. You have a little something there on your neck.” With the single-minded purpose of a chocoholic prying the lid from a pint of Super-Fudge Chunk, Veronica brushed aside the immaculate curtain of Brittany’s hair. “Here, let me get it.”
As the paper towels fell off the mirror, Veronica caught a brief glimpse of Brittany’s lone reflection as she leaned in and latched on to her jugular.
Even cold, limp and lifeless under the ghastly lighting of a florescent bulb, Brittany somehow managed to still appear healthy and alive. It had to be the tan. Satiated yet sickened by her own impulsive actions, Veronica inspected the girl’s unblemished but now rather bloodied face. This was the deciding moment. She could offer her own wrist, but why? The world was already brimming with enough youthful photo-shopped beauty. Death was a far better option—less collateral damage. Veronica took a step backwards to justify her inaction. An awakened bloodthirsty Brittany would more than likely target the middle-aged female population of North Texas, and Veronica couldn’t live with that. She felt for a pulse, then curiously pulled back the top of Brittany’s bloodied tank to read the tattooed inscription above her breast. “Their real.”
Yep, this was real alright. It had been decades since she’d killed someone on a whim, and now she had to deal with the pesky details of cleanup and disposal. Surveying the room, she wanted to kick herself for throwing away her hard-earned sobriety over an irritating teenage girl with weak, starvation diet blood. What a waste. The whole episode made Veronica feel as gross, shameful and dirty as the sticky spray tan that still hadn’t managed to dry.
In nothing but paper panties, Veronica darted to the front desk, killed the lights, then locked the front door. The parking lot was empty except for two cars. Veronica found Brittany’s purse and keys under the front counter. Returning to room four, she dragged Brittany’s lithe body down the hall towards the front door. Sweat streamed from Veronica’s forehead, under her arms and beneath her breasts. Even without a reflection to verify it, she knew her Tropi-Tan was toast and there probably wasn’t enough foundation in the world to fix this epidermal nightmare in time for the wedding.
She wanted to let her skin dry, but she also wanted to reason things out with another human being. As a concession, she sat down on the cedar bench and pulled out her phone. Her sponsor, Paula, answered on the first ring.
“I fucked up. Like big time. And I don’t know why.” Veronica’s voice quivered with self-pity. She stepped out of the paper panties and wiped up the errant drops of blood with them. “I don’t know what came over me, but I drank. I drank a lot.” Veronica patted her legs then slipped on her pants and shirt. “Well, of course, I feel horrible.” Zipping towards the front door, she popped the trunk of Brittany’s car from inside the salon. “No, I’m not driving. Hold on a sec.” Veronica set the phone down and hefted Brittany’s body into the cramped trunk. “I’m back. Sorry, I made a huge mess, and I want to clean it up before Frank gets home.” She opened the driver’s side door. It hit her then that her spray-tanned prints were everywhere. Did she still have prints? “I am just as baffled as you are, Paula. I’ve been sober for years, and now I’m going to have to re-establish a sobriety date. I feel like such an asshole.” She sat down and clutched the steering wheel. “I know. I will. I’ll call you tomorrow after I’ve slept it off. Good night.”
At the edge of Grapevine lake, sunburned stragglers wobbled through the skeletal parking lot towards their cars. Incensed that she would have to kill an extra hour or two as Brittany decayed in the trunk, she dug her ten-year chip out of her wallet and studied it by the blue light of her phone. “To thine own self be true.” With resentment directed at her own impulsive actions, she stepped out of Brittany’s Jetta and flicked the coin into the placid water. What was ten years when she had an eternity?
At 3 a.m., Veronica lifted the blanket to crawl into bed and was assaulted by her sleeping husband’s exuberant digestive system. He rolled over onto his back, stopped breathing for a good thirty seconds, and then exhaled like an outboard motor as she placed her head on his meaty chest. Despite the flatulence and sleep apnea, Frank was by far her favorite partner. She didn’t need to sleep but went through the ritual anyway to make him happy.
“Roll over, honey,” she whispered into the warmth of his neck. She preferred spooning in silence, but there was rarely silence with Frank.
They’d met at an AA meeting in the fall of 2000. She couldn’t drink alcohol even if she’d wanted to—and boy did she want to—but found in the 1950’s that twelve step meetings were fertile hunting ground. Newcomers were at the end of their rope, their brains were cloudy and wet, and they were more than willing to leave a meeting with a chatty, caring offer of sponsorship. Lucky for him, Frank received his ten-year sobriety chip the night they met.
Frank pulled her towards him. “You finally got to eat. Thank God.” He opened his eyes. The alarm in them frightened her.
“I slipped, Frank.” She sat up, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “I don’t know what came over me.” She rubbed her temples. “I’m so tired of sucking down all that morphine. It’s horrible. It would be like if I poured paint thinner all over your steak dinner.”
Frank kicked off the covers and stood. “You’re pretty good at justification, Ronnie. Have you called your sponsor?” He paced the room. “Or are you going to work this one out on your own?”
“Yes, I already called her, but it’s not the same. I’ve never had to tell Paula I’ve been,” she raised her hands to punctuate the word, ‘drinking.’ It’s embarrassing. I feel like such a failure.”
“We all fail, some of us more spectacularly than others. And FYI, alcoholism kills plenty of people.” He clicked on the lamp next to their bed and sat down beside her. “Oh my God! What happened to your face? Are you hurt?”
“The only thing that hurts is my pride. I got one of those spray tans. I didn’t exfoliate, and apparently, sweating isn’t exactly conducive to its adhesion onto my old scaly skin. I look like a dirty old lady, and that little twit at the Tropi-Tan was hell-bent on making me feel pathetic.”
“Oh, so it was her fault that you killed her?” Frank buried his head in his hands. “What did you do with her then, this twit?”
“Well, as far as the police are concerned, Brittany lost control of her car and is at the bottom of Grapevine Lake.”
“You don’t think they’re going to notice that there’s no blood? And what about the two little holes in her neck?”
“Listen, Frank, they’re not going to find her for a while, and by that time, she will have bloated into such an unrecognizable mess that it won’t matter. Don’t worry,” she said patting him on the knee. “It’s handled.” At least she thought it was, but time and DNA tests had changed since the last time she’d killed someone who wasn’t already dying.
His eyes widened. “It’s handled, huh? You think your life is manageable right now?” His voice crept higher with each word.
“Oh, don’t get all twelve-steppy on me. I made a huge mistake. It won’t happen again. Okay?” Deep in the trenches of denial, she still didn’t believe her own words, even as they left her mouth.
He shook his head and flipped off the light. “I love you, Ronnie, but I’ll never get used to this side of you.”
“Join the club.”
The Dallas Country Club was invite only and Veronica was definitely not a member. She sprinted as quickly as she could through the artfully decorated hallways towards the bridal suite, but the full body Spanx contraption was limiting her mobility. Rich, mostly white eyes stared at her at every turn. She was normally quite stunning, but her first attempt at warm glowing skin made her look as though she was suffering from that Michael Jackson disease, viti-something or the other. The yellow dress only accentuated her dermatological disaster.
Julie waved her into the suite with a bemused expression.
“What happened?” she asked, shutting the door quickly behind her.
“Spray tan gone wrong.”
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.” Julie patted her on the shoulder. “Are you okay? You feel a little clammy.”
“I’m fine. I just had the AC set to arctic on the drive over. I’ve been hot-flashing all over the place. Fucking hormones.” Veronica planted herself on the olive-green couch to avoid stepping in front of the large mirror. “Do you need me to do anything?”
“I need you to tell me the truth. How does this look?” Julie grabbed a brown wig with fringed bangs, waved it in front of Veronica, and then placed it carefully on her head.
Veronica stared from different angles to give the impression that she was carefully considering it. “I don’t know. It looks kind of wrong for your face or something.” She wanted to swallow the words as soon as she’d said them.
Julie removed the wig and dabbed at her eyes. “You’re right.”
“Aw, hell. Don’t cry. It’ll ruin your makeup.” Veronica handed her a box of tissues. “Julie, everyone knows what you’ve been through in the last year. You don’t normally wear a hair piece, so why start today? Did Marie put you up to this?”
“No, I just want this day to be perfect. Ya know? It’s bad enough I’m going to be dead soon.” Julie’s lips quivered.
“Don’t say that! I’ve worked in hospice long enough to know that you, my dear, are not at death’s door.” Veronica squeezed Julie’s knee. She knew full well that her friend had two, maybe three months left, and that was if she were lucky.
“Okay. You’re right.” Julie stood up to study her reflection in the mirror. “Can I at least draw on some eyebrows?”
“Yes. Everyone looks better with eyebrows.”
Despite the beautiful room, the yellow dresses and the upbeat music promising everlasting love, the wedding was a forlorn affair with only forty people in attendance. Most of them were from the hospice facility. A fourth of them would be dead in less than six months. Six of them, the ones who chose to be cremated, would undoubtedly be Veronica’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. She eyed them longingly as she pushed the lasagna around her plate. The last time she’d attempted a tiny nibble of food to fool a date, she dry-heaved for hours.
Once the bride and groom sealed the deal with a kiss, Mike never left his bride’s side. Her house, her savings account and her life insurance policy would now all go to him. Veronica knew there was something a little off about his careful attentiveness and people-pleasing behavior, but who was she to interfere with true love? She was just the nurse.
This is an excerpt from the novel Forever 51.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Pamela Skjolsvik has been published in Creative Nonfiction, Witness, Ten Spurs, The Moment, CNN, Writer’s Digest and in the anthology Silence Kills: Speaking Out and Saving Lives. Death Becomes Us, her first book was featured on NPR’s Think with Krys Boyd in 2016. Find out more at Pamela Skjolsvik.