Jacqueline dipped her toes into the water. It was warm, just shy of truly hot. The kind of warm that invites you in and can hold you there for hours. The hot spring released long ribbons of steam into the winter air, which were easily lost against the white banks of snow behind it. Jacqueline slipped into the water.
The spa was crowded. It was the high season for such things, and everyone was eager for the naturally occurring bath. She looked around, recognizing almost everyone: their name, their rank, their family relations. No such thing as anonymity here. Absolutely everyone she knew came to this spa absolutely every year. If the water wasn’t so nice, the whole thing would be a bore.
Jacqueline brushed a stray silver hair from her eyes and waited. And it didn’t take long for her to be found.
“Oh my God, for a minute I thought you weren’t coming,” Barbara greeted her, gliding through the water, “How’ve you been, kiddo?”
“Fine,” Jacqueline shrugged.
“Really? You’re fine? You’re sure? I would’ve been a mess after a humiliation like that – sorry, a tragedy – it’s a tragedy, Jackie, really. But you were always so…demure. No wonder you’re holding up so well. Oh, here, sweetheart, let me get that,” Barbara reached up and plucked a louse from Jacqueline’s hair. She tossed the bug into her mouth with bath-wrinkled fingers.
“But really, you’re fine?” she asked as she chewed.
“It’s not so bad,” Jacqueline said, allowing Barbara to continue picking through her hair, “I mean, we had a decent run, I suppose…And I always knew it wouldn’t last.”
“That’s really big of you, Jackie, I mean it.”
Jacqueline mulled it over, picking up a pebble with her toes and letting it fall back slowly through the water.
“Do you think it’s the hair above my lip?” she asked, “I’ve always been kind of self-conscious about it. Not that there’s a lot of it or anything, it’s just…it’s something you might notice, y’know?”
“There’s nothing wrong with your lip, believe me, it isn’t you. He’s just an animal – all impulse, no commitment. Like you said, you knew it wouldn’t last.”
“Oh God!” Jacqueline slipped out of Barbara’s hands and into the water until it was up to her nose.
“There he is!” Jacqueline pointed to the far edge of the pool. Through the throng of other bathers, adolescents, and infants clinging to mothers’ backs, strode in Shep, the alpha-male. All others yielded from his path.
“Well, wouldn’t you know it,” Barbara said, matter-of-factly, “Some nerve he’s got showing up in this corner of the pool…with her.”
“Her?” Jacqueline asked, still cowering in the water.
“Yes – the little tart. Have you heard about her? She’s taken to calling herself Hélène – who does she think she is – as if nobody knows her name is Helen,” Barbara scoffed, “Just because she’s got Shep’s favor for now, you’d think the was queen of the universe or something, the way she struts around like that.”
“He’s with Helen?”
“Oh, God, sorry sweetheart. You didn’t know?”
Jacqueline dunked her head beneath the water. Barbara pulled her up.
“What should I do? What should I do?” Jacqueline panicked, “Should I bare my teeth? Huh? Should I throw my–”
“No, no, no – that’s beneath you. You know what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna get you all nice and groomed, and you’re gonna have a nice soak, and by the time we go back up the mountain you’re gonna feel fine – brand new.”
“You mean it?” Jacqueline asked, wringing her tiny hands together.
“You’re the best…Oh, here,” she plucked a tick from Barbara’s neck. She even allowed herself the hint of a smile as she made a snack of the bug.
Jacqueline turned her back, letting Barbara groom her coat of silver hair. She pushed away all thoughts of Shep as far as she could, concentrating instead on the long pink faces bobbing aimlessly through the warmth of the water.
The picture comes from Wiki Commons. Public domain image.