Jessi knotted the scarf around her neck, checking it in the mirror before stepping out onto the street. She walked briskly—the morning was cold, and she was running late. It wouldn’t do to be late for work. With unemployment at forty-three percent, her employer could fire her at nine in the morning, and have a replacement for her before ten. She was lucky to have a job, and meant to keep it.
She passed a boarded-up restaurant—Dominique’s—and thought about the last time she’d gone there. It had been her last date, and it had been a disaster. She and Michael had been seeing each other for a month, and things were looking good. They had met at Dominique’s on a Friday after work. Dinner and a few drinks had ended with them walking to her apartment. That’s where it all fell apart. Kissing her, Michael had unwound her scarf from her neck.
“What is that?” he said.
Jessi snatched the scarf back from his hand and wrapped it around her neck again.
“It’s a birthmark.”
Michael left soon afterwards, and hadn’t asked her out again. That’s how most of Jessi’s relationships had ended. She had yet to meet a guy who could overlook the angry red splotch that wrapped its arms around her neck from chin to collar bone. Like her employer, they could always find another girl—one whose neck didn’t look like it had been peeled.
Jessi turned the corner onto Bond Street, leaving the restaurant and her memory of Michael behind.
She walked even more quickly now. The Bond Street Detention Center filled much of the block, and it wasn’t a place she enjoyed passing. The economic crisis had led to all sorts of ridiculous policies aimed at ‘making America great again’, most of which were misguided and based on fear, not facts. The government had gone on a campaign to round up illegal immigrants, homeless people, the disabled…anyone who was even slightly different or who spoke up against government policies or big business. The Bond Street Detention Center had opened less than a year ago, and it was already overcrowded. Most of the detainees had done nothing wrong, and none of them deserved to be housed in such miserable conditions. Detainees lived in tents. They were given scant food rations, foul water, and no legal assistance. On top of that, they were billed for every last expense the government incurred to house them there. When they couldn’t pay, all their assets were confiscated.
Jessi hated the policies that put innocent people behind bars, but what could she do about it? If she spoke up about it, she would end up a detainee herself, or worse. Just two weeks ago, a group of twenty protesters had been gunned down by police officers claiming they threatened national security. The protesters had been completely unarmed, participating in a sit-in against mandatory micro chipping of immigrants.
As she passed the high chain-link fence of the Detention Center, a clamour arose. Arms reached out through the fence, and voices called for her to stop, to help. Above the din, a high voice reached Jessi’s ear.
“Just your scarf, please. I’m cold.” A young girl wearing a flannel shirt much too big for her as a coat, and with no shoes stood gripping the bars, looking at Jessi. Jessi shook her head and carried on.
Jessi took the long way home, so she didn’t have to pass the Detention Center. She had been distracted all day at work. She hadn’t made any mistakes, but her boss had noticed.
“Pay attention, Jessi,” he’d said. “If you’ve got other things you’d rather do, someone else would be happy to do your job.”
She had forced herself to focus for the rest of the day, but now that she was home, her mind replayed the morning’s walk.
Just your scarf.
Just her scarf. Jessi hadn’t been out in public without a scarf since she was a baby. Her scarf was part of her. Her scarves, that is—she had dozens. Without a scarf, she felt naked, vulnerable. People stared, pointed. She couldn’t go without her scarf.
Please. I’m cold.
Jessi opened her dresser drawer. She pulled out a scarf—tomato red silk with a blue border—her sister had given it to her four years ago for Christmas. She lay the scarf gently on her bed and pulled out another—fine cashmere dyed deep green—she had bought that one herself, with money from her very first job out of high school. She laid the cashmere scarf on the bed with the silk one. She drew a third scarf from the drawer—sunny and yellow—her mother had worn it when Jessi was a girl, to make her feel like she wasn’t the only one wearing a scarf.
One by one, Jessi pulled every scarf from her drawer. Each had a story. Each brought back memories. She laid them out on her bed, the story of her life, told in scarves.
That night she slept under them.
In the morning, she woke early. She chose her favourite scarf—a soft merino knit in shades of deep pink and purple that her parents had given her for graduation—and tied it around her neck. Then she gathered the rest of her scarves in her arms and stepped out the door.
She walked quickly, for fear of losing her resolution before she got to the Detention Center. She clutched her scarves to her chest, blinking tears out of her eyes.
On Broad Street, the arms reached out through the fence. Jessi stopped and pressed a scarf into the first hand. Then the next and the next. In a minute, her arms were empty.
“A scarf for me?” It was the young girl who had asked for a scarf yesterday. She hadn’t gotten one.
“I’ve given them all away,” said Jessi, opening her hands to show they were empty. “I’m sorry.”
“That one?” the girl asked, pointing at the one wrapped around Jessi’s neck.
“But I need this scarf,” said Jessi.
The girl looked stricken, and Jessi imagined how unfair her words must have seemed to this girl who didn’t even have shoes or a coat. The girl turned to leave.
As the girl returned to the fence, Jessi unwound the scarf from her neck. She was ashamed to find her fingers trembling. She bent down to push the scarf through the fence for the girl.
The girl looked up at Jessi and smiled. Then her smile froze, and Jessi shut her eyes, waiting for the exclamation of horror she knew was coming. Instead she felt little cold fingers on her neck.
The girl gasped. “You have a flower. A beautiful flower on your neck!” Then she was gone in the crowd.
Jessi arrived at work, still dazed. As she stepped into the office, her boss looked up.
“Morning.” Then he did a double-take. “What the hell happened to your neck?”
Jessi blinked at him, as though she’d only just noticed he was there.
“It’s a flower. A beautiful flower.”