From the moment her parents saw her, they loved her.
Taking her first breathes of life, her eyes were swollen and her face was a bloody red as she cried and screamed and waved her little arms in the nurse's hold. The nurse turned pale when she began to wipe little Eleanor's body clean. Janet Lernout reached for her first and only child, but the nurse turned away. She began to whisper to the doctor, and more medical assistants gathered around. They all whispered and crowded around the little baby, who continued to cry and reach for her mother. Basil Lernout wasn't present in the delivery room, but if he had been, he would have ripped the child from their greedy grasp. He was his daughter's father from the moment she began to swell in the mother's stomach, and he was smoking wildly as he paced, waiting to hear that first muffled cry.
"Is it a serious condition?"
"Perhaps it will fade with age."
"It's only a mild skin irritation. It's sure to pass in a few hours."
"Where is my baby?" They all turned at the soft, honest voice pleading from the table. Janet blinked, pushing her wet hair out of her face. "I want to see my daughter." The doctor's face was covered by a hospital green mask, but his eyes revealed the hesitation he felt as he motioned for the nurse to bring the baby over to her. Janet eagerly opened her arms. They lowered little Eleanor to her, and she looked at the baby's little face.
Like a splash of paint against a rosy canvas, a dark crimson wave was washed over half her face. It was strange and unexplainable. The color wasn't natural for any race of human, yet it seemed to change seamlessly on her skin. Janet did not mention it. She smiled and cooed over her baby as if nothing was wrong, and because she did, nothing was wrong. The hospital staff shrugged and decided if the mother wasn't alarmed, they shouldn't be. Basil was allowed in soon after, and both proud parents glowed over their baby for hours.
"Mrs. Lernout," the doctor said once they had been moved to their room and were feeding baby Eleanor, "I suppose you might be worried about Eleanor's strange skin."
"What about her skin?" Basil asked through a giant smile, having yet to take his eyes from the baby.
"Well," the doctor stammered, "we ran a few tests along with the usual ones, and it doesn't look like it's anything dangerous. We can't explain it, but…"
"But she's perfect anyway," Janet giggled. The doctor smiled and shrugged the matter off again. Eleanor Elise Lernout was given a birth certificate and called perfectly healthy. Janet refused to have her baby covered; she wanted to show her off like any other new mother. Everyone in the hospital whispered and put on faint smiles when she was wheeled by holding a little scarred baby, but it was as if every voice fell before it reached the parents' ears.
The next day, all three Lernouts went home to their comfortable little cottage by a forest lake.
Many years later—nearly sixteen—on that very same day, Eleanor sat on the front step of her cottage home. The trees hung over her like watchful guardians, the forest closed around her like the gates of the castle, and the lake waved like an old friend that blurred her reflection when she smiled into it. As a young lady, her red print had faded to a soft rose color, but against fair skin it was still visible. Thick, dark blonde hair framed her soft features and covered a portion of it. Bright blue eyes distracted from it, and a bright grin often warmed the rest of her cheeks to match it. Every day before that one, she had been given all she had ever needed. She had been loved by two wonderful parents, understood and cared for by a small village that knew and looked after her family, and although she knew she was different, it didn't bother her.
"Everyone is different," Janet said to her each time Eleanor asked about her strange face, "and everyone has something special about them. Sometimes it's something you can see or hear, or hidden deep inside of them. You're lucky—everyone can see you're special. There is no one like you, Eleanor, and anyone who meets you will remember that."
Eleanor was playing with the hem on her new dress. Her parents would be home soon, and they would have their annual birthday dinner with a few neighbors from town. Benjamin Nolan would be coming, too. Eleanor smiled; she had over the years developed a charming little affection for him. He always had a muffin for her when she walked by his mother's bakery, and she could tell he watched her walk all the way to the corner every time. Her dark blue dress was secretly hoped to impress him. Her toes began to tap with anticipation; the sun was almost setting, and dinner wasn't even cooking yet. While the mothers worked in the kitchen, the men would talk and the kids would dance. Eleanor loved to dance—she floated on clouds, and with Benjamin as her favorite partner, it was as if she was flying. The very thought of it overtook her; she stood and began to spin on her toes.
Lights flashed over the lake, and Eleanor paused. Were they finally home? She smiled, watching the car roll around to the front of the cabin. It wasn't her parents or the Nolans. She frowned softly as two shadows stepped out of the car. One of them was the chief of police. She smiled anyway and skipped over to greet him.
"It's my birthday," she sighed, a little breathless from her lonely dance. "You can't complain about the deer from the lake getting on the road on my birthday." Officer Grant smiled in the strangest way. It made Eleanor wish she hadn't said what she did. He stepped forward, rubbing his hands together.
"You're Eleanor Lernout?" the younger officer said. Eleanor looked at him; he was new. He blinked a little rapidly at first seeing her but quickly recovered. She nodded, looking eagerly back to Officer Grant. "We have some bad news," the other one blurted.
"What bad news?" Eleanor asked quietly. She didn't like the way the new officer looked at her; she put her palm on the right side of her red face. He made her feel nervous. "They're coming in a few minutes," she mumbled. "We're having dinner."
"Eleanor, there was an accident."
She slowly dropped her hand to her side.
"Your parents are dead."