BY THE SKIN OF MY TEETH
A NOVEL BY KATIE GEORGE
You must learn to let people go. You must learn to do this so that you will live, so that you will have the opportunities I desperately wished for you.
I love you, Abigail, but I’m afraid it’s too late.
GREEN, GREEN, GREEN, the color all around me. For an endless pop of seconds, I can’t see anything but green, and my eyes are desperate for anything—anybody—else, and I’m wailing, screaming, howling at the moon, and when I realize it’s a stupid idea to do that, I bite on my knuckle, as hard as I can, silencing my cries.
My brain’s on fire, my body flailing like the husk of a snake. Tears are streaming down my face. Some people feel resolute, ready, when they are called to die, when life slips through them and heads into the next soul, but I’m not that kind of person. I’m selfish. I want my time on Earth, and I want as much of it as possible.
“Not yet!” I scream, and though I want to furl into myself, I spread out, and I’m scared senseless, but I can think of nothing less than escape. Than saying one last I love you before it’s too late, before I never get the chance again. And I know—trust me, I know—that being left behind is even more excruciating than the act of dying itself.
THE FIRST THING my mother said to me when I moved back into my childhood home at the age of twenty-seven was simple: “How long before your next job?”
I smiled, but my heart was heavy, and my wallet was not. “A few weeks, tops.” And I said it smugly, with gusto, pride.
“Are you sure about that?” she asked, her eyes narrowed like slits, lifting a mug of hot coffee to her lips. She always had the uncanny ability to see right through me.
“Trust me,” I said, because I want out of here as much as you do.
She nodded in approval, which somehow caused her to drop the mug. It shattered and sliced her foot open. It was her favorite one, the one I bought in Uruguay when I was nineteen and studying abroad. Now it was blasted to smithereens.
But the weeks started to vanish by, each moment like an unseen ghost, and there was nothing for me to do in our town. No copy editor positions open, not since the decade before; no need for journalists, because the news always seemed to be the same. I’m not even a journalist, but I know how to report on the things I see, the things I feel, and there was nothing for me. I applied for everything, including a cash register position at a nearby Hobby Lobby store.
After days and days of sluggish non-activity, I grew more and more frustrated. Writers don’t have much option in life, except to find an agent and publish a novel. And if you’re really serious, maybe you can go get a job as a librarian, try out slam poetry, be the next Sylvia Plath. Grab a guitar and write some songs, wait for a label to pick your name out of a hat. But that’s not what I’m about. I’m not your normal writer who gets high off manuscripts and coffee and the buzz of an unseen world and strong, admirable heroes. In fact, I don’t even like writing. It’s just something I happened to get good grades in when I went to school, which doesn’t really help post-college. And, if we’re being honest, the real reason I was a writer—back then, at least—was because it allowed me to go places.
One night, about two months into my stay at my mother’s home, which certainly wasn’t my childhood home anymore, I opened my laptop and dragged the cursor over countless photo albums.
SOUTH AFRICA 2016.
FLORIDA KEYS (round 2) 2014.
SAN ANTONIO 2018.
Since I had hours to kill and nothing better to do, I pushed myself through every album on that computer, the files like sudden snaps of memory. My fingers traced outlines of Scandinavian fjords and English crags, Caribbean islands and flat mesas across the American heartland. My mind was on fire, my eyes ripe with tears. There were photos of South American cuisine and my attempt at riding the hump of a camel in the Jordanian desert to Petra. I stood on Swiss cliffs and Hawaiian volcanoes. It was another woman I saw on the computer. An unrecognizable woman. Certainly not me.
But as soon as I came across the album dedicated to him, I slammed the computer shut and threw the expensive piece of technology against the wall. I had to cover the hole it left with a poster of cats I bought for ten bucks at Walmart. At least my mother would appreciate it if she ever stumbled into my childhood room again. She’d think it similar to his favorite movie, The Shawshank Redemption, but I don’t get to escape like the clever Andy Dufresne.
It isn’t easy, losing your passion at twenty-seven, when you’re one of the top travel writers in the United States. It isn’t easy getting fired for losing your brain, for losing your love of adventure, when you suddenly have the desire to hole yourself up in your room for hours at a time and cover the windows with black curtains. It sure isn’t easy when you lose who you are, what makes you tick and survive off a bone-crunching salary, but hey, you get a lot of airline miles stored up. You could always surprise your coffee-addled mother and take her to Montego Bay. But that’s only if your mother likes you and can leave the house. Not if she hates you, which my mother does.
The day after throwing my computer at the wall, I snagged a job at a gift shop in the country, where I became a sort of therapist for my customers. I learned about rich Southern aristocrats who’d been in the area for centuries, and I found myself in political discussions where I hid my ideologies. I made about the same amount I did in high school, barely over Tennessee’s minimum wage. But it made me feel safe and comfortable, working there, wrapping little pottery dishes in pink tissue paper, handing presents to the very few souls who chanced upon the store.
“What’s a girl like you doing here?” asked one brave woman, whose name I have since forgotten. It’s not important. They loved to tell me their names, and I forgot them just as quickly as I’ve forgotten the files on my computer.
There were moments when I suddenly clung back to the woman I was. When I saw a little teacup and it reminded me of India; when I found myself in a field of sunflowers and remembered London streets in the springtime. And moments when somebody would say, expecting a true, honest, distinct Southern answer: “What’s a girl like you doing here?”
The one brave woman meant the question about my career choice. But it hit me in the head, the fact that I was in a small, Podunk town. A town five miles from my mother’s house, when I’d spent the past decade traveling around the world, never settling down, never ever wanting to. Never needing to, either, because I was one of the lucky ones. Somebody who got to do what she loved and was paid to do it.
“I don’t know,” I said, though it came out like a squeak, like a mouse. I’m not a mouse. You need to know that now.
The woman who asked me the question did not have a response for me. She could see the faraway look in my eye, and she took her gift and her receipt and jetted out of the store in her periwinkle blue flats. She was beautiful, married, and a mother. She had her creed, and I had mine.
I cried for an hour after she left. Luckily no one came by the store in that hour, but I—who had never been a crier before in my life—suddenly felt like a well had broken loose in my soul. It was like my organs had burst and drained me in their juices. I couldn’t stop crying until I crammed my stomach full of cold pizza that tasted like the bottom of my shoe.
As I reapplied my mascara (I had to look presentable for my older clientele), the bell above the door tinkled, and I was alone no longer.
Though I preferred the solitude of the store, when the hours slugged by and there was nothing but me and the sound of the broken radio speakers, this was something different altogether. My boredom was sucked dry, and in its place was a sort of abysmal fear, a sort of primal awareness that I cannot even begin to describe. My intuition is sharp, or at least I pretend it is, and I felt like a cat ripped from its pride. I was suddenly damaged by a pain that crushed my skull, and it all happened so fast that I was certain I would pass out. There was the sudden awareness that I was alone, and no one would be there to help me if I needed it.
The woman was strange. She walked in, and her shoulders were severely slumped, like she had been mashed to an utmost insecurity. Her hair was strawberry colored and was tucked away in a ratty ponytail. Wisps of the strawberry strands puffed out all around, the baby hairs like flagella. Her lips were pursed so tightly that I could not imagine her ever smiling, not once in her life. Her eyes were a light green, like fading grass, and the whites around them were yellowing with age. Crow feet striated the skin around her eyelids, and I was struck by the realization that this woman was actually beautiful, even though I was noticing her flaws first and foremost. Despite this, she was gorgeous, and it was so strange, because beautiful people are normally confident, right? But this woman… It was as if she had been used to so many bricks on her shoulders that she’d physically shrunken and coiled into herself for protection.
I was so struck by her, so awed and fearing her so deeply, that I said nothing. It was my job to welcome people into this store, and since people were few and far between, this was my second probable sale of the day, and I needed to woo her, charm her to gain her credit card numbers, but I couldn’t say anything. I was too struck.
She didn’t look at me at first. She glided around, pushing her fingers against silver wind chimes, so that the spookiness was even more surreal, this time in the form of music. It was as if the sun had fallen away, and there was a gathering of gray clouds outside. I wondered if I would have to drag in the outdoor embellishments in case of rain.
Eventually, the woman curled around toward me. It was sharp, as if I was nothing, and then I was everything. Her eyes pierced into my own, flailing me open like I was a burning fish, hot on the frying pan. She stared at me with a beaming curiosity that seemed impossible from such a shrunken figure as she, and when a little grin stretched across her cracked, peeling lips, I felt like she could kill me, right here and right now, and I wouldn’t even scream.
“What is your name, dear?” she asked, her voice clear and professional. It was a melodic tune, as if she’d had years and years of training, and how would I be able to tell this fact if I’d just heard her ask one question?
“Abigail,” I said in return, though I knew I looked like one in defeat, one in submission. But what battle had I just fought? Was it internal, my keeping quiet, a steady defense against the woman in my store? Maybe my boredom had churned itself so deeply into my brain, that I couldn’t resist creating this elaborate fear toward the woman.
“Abigail,” she said, and it flared my skin. I glanced down and saw red splotches all up and down my arms. “Abigail is a classical name. A traditional name.”
“Abigail Ross,” I said back, and I cursed myself for giving out more information, but I knew she was going to ask anyway.
“Very Americana,” she whispered back, turning away, stroking a slip of baby blue pottery. There was dust on her finger, and she blew it away with paper-thin lips. “Well, Miss Abigail Ross, what is a girl like you doing in a place like this?”
Ageism does exist, just like racism and sexism and discrimination. It always will, when hearts are rotten by the germs of our culture. But here I found myself speculating as to how old this mystery woman was in the shop, out of my own curiosity. I couldn’t tell if she was spectacularly old, or younger than myself. I wondered if this would change my opinion of her, knowing whether she was old or young, and I bit my tongue as I remembered the question she’d just speared at me.
She glanced up and waited.
“Why are you here, Miss Ross?” The woman suddenly slammed her palms against the countertop, and a deep red bloomed across her angered skin. She was staring into my soul with intention, and it threw me for a loop. I stumbled back and my back brushed against the wall. Noting my terror, she moved away and started chuckling to herself.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” I sputtered, wishing I had 9-1-1 already plugged into my phone. It was possible she’d lunge across the counter and grab me by the jugular. “Why am I here?”
“Yes. Why are you here?”
“I needed a job,” I said, and I prayed somebody else would enter the store, anybody who could save me from this. I still couldn’t tell if I was making up the fear, or if it was real, and that is more terrifying than the act of fear itself.
“You need a job?” she asked, and another haunting smile lit up her face, like a bolt of lightning on Halloween. So much for assuming she couldn’t smile. She cocked her head at me, and I wondered how I’d analyzed her slumped, insecure posture, and now she seemed nothing but the most confident, self-assured woman on the planet. Her teeth flashed in my direction, butter yellow like corn, and she continued: “You’re a writer, aren’t you? Writers always have a look to them. It’s their eyes, maybe. It’s what’s in their eyes.”
“Really?” I asked in disbelief.
“No,” she said with a cocksure wink. She slid her finger against the pottery again, enjoying the feel of the dust on the skin. “The truth is that I heard some ladies talking about you at the restaurant next door. Now don’t grow mad, please. Every woman participates in the gossip wheel at some point, and since it’s a wheel, you’re bound to get caught in it sometimes.”
“And… What were they saying?” I knew I was red with shame, wondering what I did wrong.
The woman had me in her snare. “That you’re not like the women from these parts. That you don’t have the refined accent from years of practice. But they say the same thing about me, and I’ve lived here for ages.”
“Why do they say that?”
“About you? Because they’re jealous. About me? Because they’re scared.”
I had no idea what to say. I was growing more relaxed, but there was still the underlying rush of adrenaline flowing through my veins, and the woman was chuckling to herself again. She shook her head, and I caught a glimpse of a star-shaped freckle on her jawline.
“You can do better, Abigail Ross,” she said to herself, and I could tell she had places to be, other thoughts to think. “Much better.”
And with that, she turned on her heel, and the gray clouds seemed to lift, and the hot, draining sunlight was bursting through the windows again. I hurried to the window, watching as she disappeared into the nothingness, because there was no car around, and she was gone, gone, gone, and I wanted nothing but to leave too, and I thought back to my mother:
“How long before your next job?”
By the Skin of My Teeth is a project I worked on this past summer, and it was incredibly fun to write, because it challenged my writing skills. This was my first attempt at a psychological thriller (and Southern Gothic as well), and it showed me the value in trying new things. (As you guys know, I primarily write romance and magical realism.)
To give you guys a little backstory, Abigail Ross is a talented travel writer who experiences a dramatic loss. When she loses the will to write, she takes a mysterious job from a woman named Josephine Ashley, the owner of a dilapidated Antebellum mansion. Nothing is as it seems…
Therefore, I thought it would be a little fun to preview the first chapter of the book while I query to agents and attempt to get this bad boy published. Of course, who knows what will happen with that, but why not try? If I can’t get it agented, I will publish the book online within the next six months.
I don’t want to give too much away just yet, but maybe I will offer snippets of the next chapters in following blog posts. Leave your feedback and comments, please!