A short story...
The word is part laugh, part admonition. Hair tickles as it brushes the skin of her breasts, her neck, her back. Disembodied curls float gently to the floor. She stands naked before the bathroom mirror, hands clasped tightly across her belly, eyes clamped shut, face frozen in a grinning grimace half way between panic and joy, afraid to watch as each pass of the clippers reveals the unfamiliar landscape of her scalp.
“It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”
The whisper is faint, as though travelling across great expanses of space and time to reach her ears. She allows her mind to reach back toward its source, as though trying to recapture a dream upon waking, and suddenly she’s four years old, standing in front of the derelict house at 973 Birch St.
“C’mon! Let’s go!” She looks at her best friend, Lynn, and laughs. Lynn grabs her hand and pulls her up the front steps to the porch. From beyond the gaping front door, she can hear the laughing squeals of kids giddy with summer freedom, playing a game she doesn’t know. The floor of the porch glitters with shattered glass and two older kids, a boy in a tattered striped t-shirt and a girl with stringy, dirty blond hair, stand beside an old, upturned crate. She stops short, suddenly shy and unsure. “Maybe we should go back to your house,” she says to Lynn. “I’m not allowed to go this far from home.”
“It’s okay,” the older girl whispers with a small smile. “I won’t hurt you.”
She shudders slightly as the clippers nick the top of her right ear. Her eyes open just long enough to check for blood, then snap shut again, shocked at the sight of her now nearly bald head. The buzz of the clippers stops with the click of a switch and she feels the feather light caress of a brush across her shoulders and chest, followed by the soothing coolness of a damp cloth. Gentle hands propel her toward the edge of the tub. “Time for the razor?”
“Yup. Sit down.”
“I’ve been here before and it’s lots of fun,” Lynn says, giving her a playful push forward. “You just have to say the password, that’s all.”
She glances at the boy and recognizes him as one of her big brother’s friends. She thinks his name might be Robert. He smiles at her as he reaches for a length of two-by-four leaning against the splintered doorjamb. She looks hopefully to the older girl, too innocent to interpret her grin as sly, and asks, “That’s all?”
“Yup,” the girl says, gesturing to the crate. “Sit down.”
As she feels the razor slide smooth against her scalp, she breathes deeply and lets her back lean into the thighs of the woman behind her, finding comfort in their familiar strength. She feels a steadying hand on her neck, just below her left ear, and covers it with her own. When she hears the swish and tap of the razor in the sink, she pulls the palm to her mouth, pressing it to her lips, and whispers against it, “Done?”
“Yes. Are you ready to look?”
She opens her eyes to the sight of a giant man in a police uniform looming over her, staring gravely at the top of her head. She’s curled up on the chesterfield in her mother’s front room, dressed in her blue quilted housecoat, her favourite, the one with the heart shaped pocket and lace on the collar. She thinks she must have just had a bath because she feels damp curls against her cheeks and she’s very warm and sleepy. Her eyes slip closed and her mother’s hushed voice reaches her from across a great distance of time and space.
“They were asking for a password… they just kept hitting her with that board, one whack for every wrong answer… over and over and over again… and there were nails in it… Lynn finally came to get me… such a mess… she’s said almost nothing since.”
She stands and steps out of the tub. Turning toward the mirror, she takes a deep breath, releases it slowly, and raises wide eyes to a face she hardly recognizes. She allows herself a moment to take stock, surprised by the bowling-ball roundness of her own head and the pallor of her own scalp.
A large hand mirror is proffered and she takes it, raises it high and adjusts the angle to find the spot.
And there, right at the crown, like red intersections on an old map of a half-forgotten place, she sees the physical scars for the first time. She slowly traces each with the tips of her fingers, noting every corner, every bump, every ridge and groove.
Finally, she lifts glistening eyes to the reflected gaze of the woman watching over her right shoulder. Smiling slightly, a choked whisper escapes her lips.
“They’re so very small.”