The Price of Beauty

331076
A new operation is available, it will burn your fat and clear your skin, it will shape your face and add shine to your hair...it will make you beautiful. But at a cost. Not only is this operation unbelievably expensive, it's extremely dangerous too. The eight-month long process pushes your body to its limits, and can even prove to be deadly.
When Cassie's twin sister Lily turns down the operation Cassie is offered it in her place free of charge. But what is the price of beauty? And is Cassie willing to pay it?

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14. Fourteen

“What do you want for Christmas Elle?” Dani asks, sat at her laptop, getting to work on her annual holiday budgeting and spending spreadsheet. I remember thinking it was so strange when I saw her do it last year, but I suppose if you’re a maths student, it sort of counts as revision.

“Money.” Elle shrugs, keeping it simple, “And I don’t mean gift cards, I mean money...real-life cash that I can hold and appreciate, and spend on whatever I like-”

“Okay, I get the picture.” Dani cuts her off, typing away, “Tiffany? What about you?”

“I’m not sure…” She trails off, “I could do with a new backpack, but it’s probably better if I pick that out myself…so I’m good with cash too.”

“Cassie?” Dani looks up at me, hopeful, “Surely you trust me to pick you out something nice?”

“Whatever you can afford,” I sigh, “I’m not fussed.”

“Wow...all of you really seem to be getting into the holiday spirit,” Dani says sarcastically, turning her laptop off, “How about we do a secret santa? That could be fun.”

“Or a complete waste of money,” Elle remarks, rolling her eyes, “We did the same thing in my halls last year, I ended up with a solar-powered twerking santa desk toy.”

“Yeah, but we all know each other well enough to pick out stuff we all know we’ll love,” Dani argues, “Come on, lighten up a little, this could be really fun!”

“I’m up for it,” I decide, coming to Dani’s aid, “And if we set the budget at £15 then we can each buy something nice without overspending.”

“It would be cheaper than having to buy a gift for everyone,” Tiffany nods, warming to the idea, “But we’re all going home for the holidays, when would we open the gifts?”

“When we get back,” Dani decides, “We’ll all be back before new years, right? So it won’t be that late.”

“Alright...I’m in,” Tiffany nods, “Cassie? Elle?”

“Sure.” I agree.

“Secret santa it is,” Elle sighs, “But I still want cash.”

“I gotta go to my lecture,” Dani gets up to go, checking her watch, “I’ll find Lily whilst I’m there and ask if she wants to join in. See you later.” I smile, noticing that for the first time in weeks hearing my sister’s name doesn’t cause an awkward, uncomfortable feeling to emerge in my stomach. Me and Lily have been talking a lot more since I went to visit her, and things are really starting to settle between us. I was dreading Christmas before, but now, I think Lily being with me will help, not make things worse, when we go down to see our parents. I actually feel like I have my sister back. In fact, everything seems to be settling now.

For the first time since I started the process, Dr Sawn has begun to allow me to put on weight. Were entering stage two, toning. I’ve swapped to pills that encourage muscle formulation, starting strength training, and changed to a specially designed diet. I’m not sure if it’s merely the fact that I don’t spend hours writhing in pain anymore, but this second stage seems a lot...gentler, than the first. I feel stronger now, when I look in the mirror I actually see me, not some strange, ghostlike figure who looks like a character in a horror-film. I still feel guilty, and I’m still not sure that this isn’t all a huge mistake, but I feel ready now; ready to survive this.

“Are you going to the fundraiser tonight?” Tiffany asks me, bringing me back into the room.

“I think so, it’s a Friday night and I’ve got nothing better to do.” I shrug, “How much are tickets?”

“They’re £5 on the door, but you’ll need extra for drinks and stuff.” She tells me, “And the dress code is ‘winter warmers’.”

“‘Winter warmers’” Elle scoffs, “What does that even mean?”

“It means wear a scarf or something,” Tiffany rolls her eyes, “And it’s supposed to tie in with ideas about staying positive in the winter months, you know, to raise awareness for seasonal depression and stuff?”

“That…makes my brain hurt.” Elle grumbles, sighing. “Besides, I can’t go anyway, I have to hand in my formative assessment for this term on monday, and I’m busy sorting out travel insurance and stuff over the weekend.” Elle’s flying off to California for a sunny Christmas with her dad and his partner Dean, they moved there for work just after Easter last year and Elle hasn’t seen either of them in person since. It matters more to her than she lets on, but Elle’s sensitive about her family, and as she’s not exactly my number one fan right now anyway...I haven’t really made an effort to talk to her about it.

“I wish I was going somewhere warm this Christmas…” Tiffany trails off, not feeling the same urge as me to stay off the subject, “I went to Cuba one year with my family when I was nine, it was so nice.”

“I have a tutorial to get to,” Elle gets up to leave, “Have fun at ‘winter warmers’ or whatever.”

“I need to go too,” I lie, suddenly in need of some air, “I’ll see you later.”

-----

“I look stupid.” I sigh, hunching my shoulders as I walk with Dani and Tiffany through the small crowd.

“You look fine.” Tiffany tells me, rolling her eyes, “It’s just...oversized.” I struggle to find comfort in her words, feeling like a tiny bug drowning under a mountain of fabric. This jumper dress used to be one of my favourite things, but now it hangs on me, showing off my dramatic and unhealthy weight-loss for all the world to see.

“Well I think you look sexy,” Dani chips in, “The way it hangs on you, it’s quite...seductive.”

“Brilliant,” I mutter sarcastically, “So people will either think I’m too poor to afford clothes that fit... or that I’m sending off some kind of signal?”

“People will see what you show them,” Dani argues, not tolerating any of my moaning, “Show them confidence, and they’ll see confidence. Show them awkwardness and discomfort, and they’ll see awkwardness and discomfort.”

“That’s easy enough to say and think, but how are you supposed to ‘show confidence’?” I point out.

“Just show you.” Dani shrugs, as if it’s the easiest thing in the world, “Seriously Cassie, just love yourself, and let the rest of the world wonder why.”

“Right…” I trail off, not really ‘feeling’ her whole motivational vibe. “I’m gonna go get a drink.”

I’m not sure if I’m paranoid or not, but I feel like everyone is looking at me. Dr Sawn still hasn’t gone public with my videos, but rumours have been flying about the suddenly-skinny English student who’s sister moved out of their house without reason and who’s friends always seem tense around. Maybe they think it’s an eating disorder? Maybe they think I’m having some sore of mental breakdown? They could hardly guess the truth...but that won’t stop them from trying. Even my lecturers have been looking at me strangely...or have they? Maybe this is all in my head-

“What can I get you?” The bartender asks.

“Um...just a sparkling water.” I decide, sticking to Dr Sawn’s guidance and steering clear of alcohol. Calories aside, it can really mess with the process...apparently anyway. I take my drink, standing awkwardly,  a still figure in a slowly moving crowd, sipping away at the most exciting thing I’m currently allowed to drink.

“You’re Lily’s sister, right?” A guy come up behind me, noticing me standing alone and deciding to make conversation.

“Yeah, that’s me.” I smile.

“I’m Alex, I deputy-lead the maths society Lily’s a part of,” he introduces himself, “Wow...you, uh, you look just like her.”

“Well, we are twins.” I point out, laughing.

“Right, yeah...of course,” he nods, “I, um, I haven’t seen Lily around recently, is everything alright?”

“Yeah, yeah everything’s fine,” I shrug, “Or at least I think it is, truth is I haven’t seen a lot of Lily recently either.” I try to stay calm, but my mind is already wandering, worries starting to surge up. Dani said Lily was distant since she moved back in with Sammy, and Alex seems to be inferring that she’s been missing society meetings…

“Doesn’t she live with you? I though her and Danielle moved in with you and a couple of other girls this year?”

“She, um- she moved out,” I reveal, “Uh...would you excuse me? I need to go find someone.” I don’t wait for an answer, panicked, I walk back through the crowd, searching for Dani. I knew something was wrong...I just knew it, Dani’s only been telling me half of the story and I need to know why. What’s really going on between Lily and Sammy? How far has this move-in really gone? I spot her blue striped scarf in the distance, rushing over to her.

“Did Lily quit the maths society?” I ask, getting straight to the point.

“Hello to you too,” Dani sighs, taken aback, “Are you okay? You look off.”

“Did Lily quit the maths society?” I repeat my question, slower this time, placing a great deal of emphasis on each individual word.

“She, uh, she hasn’t been at meetings or events recently but I, I don’t think she’s officially quit or anything…” Dani trails off. I can’t figure out whether her relaxed nature is an act aimed to calm me down or genuine naivety.

“She’s been spending all her time with Sammy, hasn’t she?” It’s a rhetorical question, we both know I’m right.

“She seems happy Cassie, I think this is what she wants-”

“For now maybe but give it a week or two and everything will come crashing down, just like it did last time!” I shout, all my built-up rage escaping.

“Cassie stop, you’re causing a scene-”

“I can’t help it if I’m angry! Lily’s back with that abusive ass and it’s all my fault.” I exclaim, my cry’s turning to sobs as the truth of my words hits me, “It’s all my fault…”

“Cassie...Cassie look at me,” Dani sighs, taking my hands in hers, “Look around you Cassie, we’re at a mental health fundraiser. You’re a beautiful woman who’s been taken advantage of my a crafty man who knew just how to manipulate your insecurities, Lily’s a kind, friendly, and warm hearted person whose forgiving nature has allowed her to let her ex-boyfriend back into her heart, unable to see or fully comprehend the potential risks involved. Everyone’s got their issues Cassie, everyone’s got their problems, but look around you- people care! I care Cassie, I really do...and I promise you, neither you or Lily are going to suffer on my watch, because I’m here for you both, because I care.” For a moment I just stand there, stunned by her words, but then, like a candle lighting up somewhere in the back of my mind, an idea begins to form.

“Do you have your phone on you?” I ask her.

“Yeah, why?”

“I want to shoot a quick video,” I tell her, “We could just do it other there, by that wall.”

“A video? Like those ones you do with Dr Sawn?” She starts to catch on to the idea.

“Yeah, exactly,” I nod, “Just a quick clip.” We move over, and I stand with my back to the wall, under the light of the lampost.

“Ready?” She checks. I nod, waiting another couple of seconds before I begin.

“I’m here tonight at the ‘winter warmers’ mental health fundraiser on campus, there are easily hundreds of people here tonight, raising awareness in support of those who suffer from mental health conditions. Hundreds of people are here tonight who care, who want to support their friends through all their struggles, even the battles that are going on in the most unreachable battlefield of all: the mind. I may not be the best role-model when it comes to body image issues, but I do know this, I am trying to do what makes me happy in a world that conditions us to pay attention to our sadness, all in an effort to sell us a variety of solutions they convince us will help. If being here tonight has taught me anything, it’s that deep down, all we ever want for each other is to be happy. This event is alive with optimism and positivity, the sort of energy I wish could be around us anywhere we go in the world.” I take a deep breath, unaware of just how much I’d been holding in, “I’m done.” I tell Dani, inviting her to put the phone down.

“That was perfect,” she tells me, “Really inspiring.”

“Inspiring?” I laugh, “I’m anything but...anyway, thank you...for everything.”

“You don’t have to thank me Cassie, and you never will,” She assures me, “I’m going home for Christmas but we can still video-chat if you like? Being at your parents might be tricky, I know what you and Lily can be like and neither of you are really in the holiday spirit at the moment…”

“It’s Christmas Dani,” I cut her off, “We’ll be fine.”

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