by Nicole Bea
Nora Rhodes has had a secret since she was eleven: she struggles with dermatillomania, a condition characterized by the compulsive urge to pick at her body. She covers the holes and scars with layers of thick makeup, shame, and denial in hopes of hiding her face—and herself. Her father doesn’t seem to understand the problem, and in Nora’s small town of Princess Cove, resources for help are extremely limited.
Then, the last semester of senior year, Finn Connolly moves to town from big city Vancouver. When he and Nora fall into a whirlwind relationship, everything about him makes Nora want to show her true face to the world and not let dermatillomania hold her back from life experiences. However, Nora soon uncovers Finn has secrets of his own. Will they be brave enough to be honest with one another, or will their attraction to each other remain only skin deep?
BUY THE BOOK
There are three things I can honestly say I haven't done yet: first, kiss a boy; second, drink a beer; and third, go to high school without makeup on.
Actually, I guess I'd have to make some allowances for the fact that in grade nine I kissed Steven Lockwood on a dare once, and in grade three Brian Hopewell grabbed my face and smooched it underneath the monkey bars. I've had a sip of gin at Amandla Briar's birthday party in grade ten, a half a Smirnoff under the bleachers at a dance in grade eleven, and two gulps of something called Canadian Cooler which tasted like a cross between juice and something that you use to clean drains. The last one, though? Well, that's a certainty.
To be fair, it's not to say I haven't wanted to go to school fresh and bare faced, it's just never been an option. Not since before junior high when everything started to go downhill.
This morning, my face is bleeding again. It's a normal occurrence—a ritual—part of my disorder and an underlying cause of anxiety in my life.
A little river of red snakes its way down the bridge of my nose—slowly at first, then all at once—tickling the minuscule hairs on my nose as it crashes over them. I've gone too deep and too far in the battle of my fingernails versus my face, not heeding the tiny voice in the back of my head that tells me to stop. Sighing, I grab a piece of tissue from a box at my bedside in a vain attempt to try and stop the bleeding, but I already know with nose abrasions they kind of stop on their own schedule. Pressure helps if you have time. If you don't, then it looks like it's time to call in sick.
I'd love to do that today, only I have a gigantic geography test in Ms. Doucette’s class. Thankfully, I've learned to get up thirty minutes early each day because I know I'm going to spend at least that much time at the mirror, scouring over myself. With moderate pressure, I hold the tissue to my face and wait for the spot I've dug open to finally stop bleeding. I recite the names for the ocean depths backward in my head to make me feel like I'm studying.
I started picking at my face when I was eleven, an unconscious habit that seems to have begun when my mother passed away. Of course, it's not like I blame her for wreaking havoc on my body; I think I just never quite figured out how to process the whole thing. As I got older the action grew into a habit, expanding into this fervent monster that takes up most of my morning. If I don't pick, I'm moody and itchy feeling, the desire to run my fingers over my skin to look for blemishes interrupting my entire day. Sometimes I even end up doing it without noticing, other times it helps me focus.
There's a word for it—the compulsive behaviour. Dermatillomania. I looked it up online maybe six months ago when I nearly tore a spot on my shoulder down to the bone. I was bleeding on my bedsheets when I finally thought it might be of some consolation to see if anyone else in the world experiences the same thing. It seems that they do, in small numbers at least, some worse and some better than myself.
As I lift the facial tissue from my nose, the red line starts to run again. Not enough time has passed yet. I sit on my bed and stare at my phone, watching the seconds tick by into minutes. Eventually I'm going to need to get ready; the rest of my face is a disaster of pock marks and scabs and recent scars that should never be seen by the general public. It's been layer after layer for seven years, purple and red circles on my face and arms and legs. The arms and legs are easy to hide. The face is less so.
Pulling open my bedside drawer, I find a collection of random items: pencils, notebooks, a thermometer, and my tape machine. I pull a long strand of adhesive from the roll and carry it gingerly on one finger to the full-length mirror on the other side of the room. As I stare into it, I recognize I'm a mess. My orange hair is piled in a knot on my head, my blue eyes vacant and red around the edges from straining to look so hard at my pores. Covering over my smattering of freckles is a roadmap of destruction in varying degrees of healing caused by my own fingers, while my naked shoulders look as if they've been burned with hundreds of cigarettes. The surface of my dresser reflects in the glass, bottles of concealer and blush and foundation all lined up on the ledge and waiting for their day's work.
I remove the tissue again, quickly folding it up and sticking it to the middle of the tape. A makeshift bandage, face sized, for the pothole I've created. The blood just starts to run again before I slap on the cellophane. At least now I’ll be able to get started with the rest of my daily routine: covering up the atrocity I've created.
Twenty minutes later, the bleeding has stopped, and I've made my face presentable, though I'm exhausted from being awake already. There's something about picking that invigorates my senses, then the aftermath is always all anguish and regret. As I dig a hairbrush through the tangles of my hair, dry shampooed within an inch of its life, I feel as if every mark on my face is yelling at me from under the thick layer of foundation. Someone's going to say something today. I just know it.
There's a knock at the door, gentle and short.
“Nora? Are you almost ready? It's raining out so I’ll drop you off at school on my way to work.”
My father. He acts like everything is fine, but I know he's just as lost as I am. Without my mother it feels as if we don't know what to do anymore; like for the past seven years we've just been floating through space trying to make it through the days.
“Yeah, another ten minutes. Just have to find something to wear.”
“Are you in there picking? We don't have time for that this morning. You're going to leave nose prints on the mirror again.”
I don't say anything, holding my breath like I think he might disappear if he can't hear me, and eventually I hear his footsteps retreat down the laminate and into the kitchen. Every time he asks me that question, it makes me want to tear myself apart. If I had more time, I might. That makes it sound like I'm exacting some kind of revenge; I'm not. It's just that drawing attention to the problem makes the problem persist more. Then I end up with that aforementioned itchy feeling, and I am overwhelmingly compelled to squeeze at something on my skin from under the flashlight of my cell phone.
I hold off because I'm already late.
The rain outside frizzes my hair, despite the fact that I've twirled and tucked it into the hood of my raincoat. The ginger colour seems dull on these types of days, all faded and almost smoky with the humidity. Errant strands whip around my face in the wind as I crash through the front doors of the school, my best friend Victoria standing there with a grin on her face. She looks flawless, as always, and based on the perfect contour of her eyebrows, she's also been in my locker and makeup stash.
“Hi, Ria.” I shake the raindrops from the sleeves of my jacket before unzipping it, spraying her with water. Normally she'd let out a little squeal but today her excitement is geared toward something else.
“Guess what! I saw a new boy going into Principal Rockwell's office. Tall, with this really sexy black hair. He looks like he could be a singer in a rock band or something.”
New students are rare in Princess Cove, our tiny high school one of the only listed attractions on our town map. This is only because the field to the east backs onto one of the provincial parks. So when someone from out of town comes in to stay, it becomes a big deal. The fabric of the town starts to fray a little bit as the newcomer finds their place and is never quite entirely absorbed.
“I'm sure he'd appreciate you saying so.” We head down the hallway to my locker, which I'm sure is still unlocked from Victoria's rummaging.
“Come on, Nora, what man doesn't dream of being a rock star?” She looks me up and down with her dark eyes as I flip open the metal door, shoving my small backpack into the crevice. “Your makeup looks nice today, by the way. But I think the bridge of your nose has rain on it.”
I dab at the spot Victoria is talking about and feel the telltale wetness. It's not rain; the place where I've picked open is seeping. Victoria thinks I just have problems with acne. I've never bothered to tell her the truth about my face. It's just easier to have her think that the occasional makeup mishap is caused by something normal rather than self-inflicted.
“Thanks.” I rummage around in the mess for my extra powder foundation to pat over the smudge.
“Anyway, I did some digging and I talked to Jane who spoke with Amandla who lives next door to the old Peterson house. She says his name's Finn Connolly and he's from Vancouver. How fancy is that? Vancouver. I'd like to go there some day. See the Pacific Ocean.”
“We already live by the ocean.”
“Not the Pacific one.”
Victoria rambles on, leaning on the empty locker next to mine as I touch up my nose, only stopping when I pull my geography text from underneath my bag. I don't bother asking her how she got all of this information at eight in the morning. She's friends with everyone and she talks a lot, both of which make her the exact opposite of me. I mean, I know everyone, but I don't know everyone like she does.
“...anyway, I think that maybe we should keep him on our radar, you know?”
Just then, from down the corridor, marches Principal Rockwell and the new boy, Finn. Victoria is right; he does look a little bit like a rock star with his shaggy dark hair and leather jacket. I know I'm staring but I can't help it; he almost looks too old to be in high school, period, with his tanned skin and what appears to be a five o'clock shadow. Then he catches my eye and smiles, a funny feeling crawling up in my throat while a ticklish pink glow spreads across my face. He's looking right into my soul.
“This here will be your locker, Mister Connolly. Next to Miss Rhodes. Number 264.” Principal Rockwell makes some kind of grand gesture as if he's presenting Finn with a brand new car instead of a dented metal cubby.
Victoria nearly falls over trying to get out of the way. “Hi, I’m Victoria Brown,” she begins, “and this is Nora Rhodes. Nice to meet you, Finn. You live in the old Peterson house next door to Amandla, right?”
Finn nods. “I guess I do.”
His eyes are still trained on me and I wonder if he's trying to sort out what exactly is wrong with my face. If I would have known there was going to be a new boy so close to me maybe I would have actually gotten my father to call me in sick. The last thing I want is for someone to figure out what's going on.
“Well, that's about all I've got for you, Mister Connolly. You've your schedule and my little hand drawn map. If you need anything I'm just at the end of the hall or I'm sure one of the ladies here would be more than happy to help you.” Principal Rockwell gives us a wink, as if he knows exactly what we're thinking about Finn. I guess he's been teaching long enough that he probably knows teenagers like the back of his hand.
“Thanks,” Finn replies as Rockwell ambles back down the hall, the overhead lighting reflecting off his bald head. “Nora? That's a pretty name.”
“Th-thanks,” I stammer, half hiding behind the locker door. Victoria slams it in my face with a forced smile, giving me a theoretical kick in the shins. “So I hear you're from Vancouver? What brings you to Princess Cove?”
Finn shuffles with his bag, shoving it into the narrow opening.
“Wow, you all seem to know so much about me already. Why don't you tell me something about you, Nora Rhodes?” His voice is deep and rocky, making my stomach do flip flops in my chest cavity.
Before I have a chance to reply, the warning bell rings indicating five minutes before the start of class. The sound of it going off makes me half jump out of my skin. Finn snorts and pulls a binder from his bag before slamming the door shut.
“Um, I have a test so I should probably go but, I'll see you later? I mean, have a nice first day?” I ramble.
Nora, you idiot.
Victoria’s still standing there next to me, amused by this exchange, her binder shoved under her arm and a gigantic smile plastered on her face.
“Guess I'll see you back here after the last bell. I look forward to it.”
Finn flashes me a soft grin, shifting his weight to the opposite foot. I can't help that I reciprocate, but I find myself unable to meet his gaze, a cursory shyness falling over me. I've never had this problem with the other boys in my classes before, but maybe it's because there isn't anything about them that intrigues me the way Finn from Vancouver does.
I almost think he's going to say something else before he turns down the corridor as if he's lived here all his life, knowing exactly where to go, leaving me feeling empty at his departure. Victoria touches my arm to bring me back to earth, nodding her head toward the geography classroom. As I hoist my textbook in front of my chest I wonder if Finn knows he's already walked straight through me and all over my heart.