I stood at the back of the room, when the man and woman walked in. The woman was shouting.
“Her glutes aren’t showing, Simon. Stop seeing things.” The woman pushed the man away, and walked towards me while still talking to him. “The pose might be a little risqué. That’s all. But it’s our daughter’s best self-portrait. She wants it at the center of her birthday celebration, and she’ll have it.”
“Bethany, please,” the man put a hand on the woman’s shoulder, “let’s talk about this.”
The woman slapped the hand away. Hard. The flesh on flesh sound echoed through the empty parlor. When he reached for her again, she stopped and said, “There isn’t any talking to be done. Grow up, Simon! Our daughter is sixteen-years-old. She has the right to show some thigh, if that’s what she wants.”
“We don’t know, Bethany,” the man said, “maybe she—”
“There are no maybes here.” She left him talking to empty air. And wiping tears on the sleeve of her black suit, the woman closed the distance between us. “Excuse me,” she said, “you’re the event planner?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I extended a hand, “let me offer you my—”
“Never mind that.” She waved my words away. Her tears and her annoyance towards the man were covered by a bright smile. “My husband can’t agree with me on the details of the celebration.” She glared at him when he joined us. “Would you mind being the voice of reason?”
“Bethany,” the husband said, “don’t do this.”
“I understand now.” The woman laughed. “You know he’ll agree with me,” she said, pointing at my chest. “I’m right and you don’t want to hear it. Well, too bad.” She took a picture out of her suit’s inner pocket. “Let’s get this over with.”
The husband tried to grab the picture, but she had already put it in my hands.
“You tell me, sir.” The woman looked from my face to the picture. Then she turned towards her husband, and said to me, “Tell us.”
I didn’t look at the picture. My eyes were on the husband’s face. The dark circles under his eyes were wet and swollen. His lips were trembling.
I squeezed the picture between my fingers.
“He’s getting to you too, isn’t he?” The woman shook her head. “Just look at the picture. I made her that dress. I don’t understand the ribbons, but I made the dress. It was the only thing she asked for, so of course mommy made it for her baby.” She smiled and hugged herself. “It’s hand sewn. I had a business meeting I couldn’t miss, but I made the dress during the plane ride. On her birthday. But I don’t understand the ribbons.” She began to cry. “I don’t understand the ribbons. I don’t understand the red ribbons…”
“They told me she had to see it for herself,” the man said.
I nodded before lowering my eyes to the picture in my hands. A girl in a white dress floated in still waters. Tendrils of blood, that looked almost too red to be real, streamed out of her wrists.
photo, by Elena Kalis