The ceremony was to start in two hours, and Mara was not yet dressed. She ran her mother’s words through her head and paced about the room. She imagined the entire town of Ambrose, watching her with their piercing, judging eyes. Then she remembered Graham, holding her hand the night before and telling her that none of that mattered.
The Hunter family was cut from the right mold. Blond haired and blue-eyed, they were handsomer versions of the rest of the townsfolk, Mayor Hunter with the exact broad shoulders and thoughtful countenance that one would desire from a politician, and his wife a high-cheeked, wide-smiled woman who looked dazzling on his arm without drawing too much attention away from himself. Their son Graham, with his kind eyes, strong jawline, and spanking new law degree, was exactly what anyone hoped or expected the son of his parents would be.
Mara hadn’t noticed. Sitting at a table with his mother and father that first day, the collar of his shirt crisp and bright, Graham Hunter was to her as just another person in the town, another person she would have to charm.
Ever since she started school at the age of eight, Mara had been fighting against her mother’s reputation and her strange face. She was the first new student the elementary school had seen in its memory, and for the first few days she was a celebrity. The other children gathered around her at lunch and recess, touching her hair, stroking her arms, asking her to teach them small phrases in Chinese. Then the rumors started. Parents pulled their children aside in their bedrooms, warning them—sometimes forbidding them—against mingling with the new girl. They had seen mother about town, perpetually shrouded in her long black coat, with her mouth in an unflinching frown and her cold eyes pointed straight ahead. They had seen the dilapidated house she had moved into, which must have been infested with mice and bats. Who knew what these strangers were, what they became behind closed doors.
Mara did all she could to blend in. She smiled and greeted the other children with friendly words, wore her school uniform tucked in and ironed in the exact manner of everyone else, and was sure to participate enthusiastically in events around town. Gradually the town became less wary of her, and as her sisters grew up they were cautiously accepted too, though everyone still kept their distance from Fa.
But with love Mara had been unlucky. As she grew older, she was pursued more fervently than any other girl in town. She learned to brush away advances, however, seeing quickly that her suitors were more interested in confirming rumors they had heard about her family and discovering the secrets of the Switches than in her. And so when Graham started coming to the restaurant the summer after he returned home from school, first every week and then nearly every day, staying after closing hours to talk to Mara, she had not been terribly alarmed. She had assumed the mayor had sent him as some kind of amateur spy, and guarded herself appropriately.
If he was a spy, Graham was an extremely subtle and patient one. He talked to Mara about normal things: the books she liked, her relationship with her sisters, her dreams for the future. He never asked her how her hair had turned black or how her eyes had been stretched into almond-shaped slants. When he did visit her house, he didn’t snoop in corners or question how the unbelievable architectural constructions came to be. He didn’t flinch when Fa Switch looked at him, he joked with her younger sisters without apprehension. And when he told Mara she was beautiful, his hand gently touching her cheek, no matter how hard Mara looked she could not see a glimmer of fear in his eyes.
Indeed, no one besides her sisters had ever looked at Mara with those utterly accepting eyes. She did not understand. She turned away first in confusion when he asked her to marry him. She confronted him. Why? she asked. Why wasn’t he scared of her like everyone else? Why wasn’t he so grotesquely curious as everyone else had been?
He replied that he saw no reason to be scared. Returning from school, he was surprised at the town’s provinciality. He had seen men and women who looked like Mara in his years away, he had befriended people from all over the world. In fact, he had not planned to stay in Ambrose upon returning, finding the air oppressing, until he met her.
Mara stepped into her wedding dress and took a deep breath. She tried to make the woman in the mirror relax. She closed her eyes and imagined the crowd, applauding, smiling. She imagined the townsfolk coming to her and Graham afterwards with warm embraces and congratulations, imagined her mother grinning in spite of herself. Then, the vision behind her eyes turned. She saw herself in her wedding dress, a heap of tears on the ground, and the looming, angry faces of the town staring down at her.
She shook the vision away. She slipped on her shoes and walked out the door, where her sisters were waiting for her, and boarded the car to the ceremony where everyone was waiting.