by Emily Cameron
Tiffany sat at a bus stop waiting for the 4 line to take her home. She was the only one at the stop and preferred it that way. Rather than concerning herself with strange men in windbreaker coats, Tiffany was free to spend her time waiting peeling pieces of calcified gum from the underside of the bus stop bench. It was for this habit that her mom forced a small bottle of Purell into her backpack daily. Three months into the semester, a collection of Purell bottles were scattered in various trashcans around the city. Another sixteen ounces worth of miniature bottles were still in the bottom of her purple, nylon bag. As she sat prying gum from her seat, Tiffany began to hum. She liked to taste the wind and pick a song to match. Temperature made a difference, humidity too, but most importantly whatever chemicals the atmosphere had managed to absorb that day. The air tasted like Bob Dylan today.
Far off, she could hear the air brakes on the bus, that nails-on-a-chalkboard squeal. Something pinched at the crown of her head, and she rubbed her hand along neatly trimmed hair searching for a bug bite. Finding nothing, she swung a padded strap across her left shoulder and attempted to read the radio-station advertisement on the side of the bus as it pulled to a stop. 99.5, The Fox. This is a station she will never listen too.
The driver tilted his head just slightly, in a way meant to imply, do you have two dollars? She did, and slid two dollars in change through a metallic box before slipping down the aisle as the bus began to move. She sat in a seat somewhere in the middle, briefly contemplating pulling the stop cord. This, of course, would not get her home, but was an interesting temptation. On the bus, there were two older men towards the front, speaking loudly to one another, a woman towards the back with a paper bag of groceries in her lap, and a guy with shoulder-length hair in a brown sweatshirt. Tiffany wondered what would happen if she kissed anyone one of these people. What would it feel like and would they kiss her back? She thought the man in the sweatshirt or the woman with the groceries might.
The bus pulled to a stop again. The two men at the front got off and another got on. He sat directly behind her. This man smelled just slightly of stir-fried garlic and broccoli. She wondered if he put sesame seeds on it, just as she felt another twinge at the back of her head. Nothing.
Tiffany arrived home to her mother squeezing ground beef into a pan. It sizzled and shifted the sour kitchen smell to sweet. Her mother didn’t turn around, rather gave the pan a brief stir, tossing in a box of pasta and water. She inhaled deeply– dinner was ready.
The following morning, she woke early. The blinds in her bedroom window only extended halfway and seven a.m. sun came pouring in. She groaned and tried to roll over, to hide her face, but there was no way to get away from it. Defeated by a star, she stood and carted her weary body to the bathroom. Her neck and shoulders ached, probably from sleeping on them funny. She sat heavily on the avocado toilet bowl, rolling her left shoulder and then her right while she peed. When done, she stood to take stock in the mirror and froze. There was a single, white circle at the crown of her head. Beyond pale, this circle of skin was transparent; she pressed her fingers to it. Her scalp was tender, and she could feel bumps at every irritated follicle.
Her mother would continue to sleep for the next several hours, and without help Tiffany was at a loss for how to cope with her discovery. Mom’s infomercial habit kept her up to the early hours in the morning– she was entirely useless until the mail came in the early afternoon. Mom would rush out of bed to see if her new box set of kitchen knives had arrived. As Tiffany got dressed, she was so conscious of the little bald place on her head, she swore it was caving into her brain. Her reflection could neither confirm nor deny this. With no other options and no more time before school, she squeezed a knit hat over her remaining hair and left.
At the stop, she picked at the petrified gum with a new vigor and squeezed an entire bottle of Purell into her hand after, tossing the empty onto the ground. She rubbed the alcohol gel across her hands, under her fingers nails, between her fingers, and up over her elbows. The air tasted like the Silver Jews today. The bus arrived as usual, and she sat down amongst a group of strangers. Some sat silently, a few others spoke casually. She could feel the slightest breeze playing at the edges of her hat from a crack in the window beside her seat. She shuddered and rubbed more hand sanitizer over her skin, knuckles beginning to turn slightly red with the abuse.
All through school, Tiffany could swear she felt the little patch of bare skin growing. She would rush to the bathroom to check at each passing period, but every time, a crowd of girls was already there, applying shimmery pink lip gloss in the artificial light. By the end of the day, she couldn’t take it any longer and asked permission to leave class early. Finally, completely alone in the girls bathroom, she peeled back the grey hat and looked at her reflection, fingering the circle of skin. She couldn’t decide if it was her imagination or not, but she was almost positive it had gotten bigger.
Tiffany pulled a black, felt-tip pen out of her backpack and drew a circle around the outer edges of the crater. This was a trick she learned from bug bites in the summer– if the bite kept getting bigger, it was time to do a little more than Walgreen’s brand anti-itch cream. She figured this technique would work just as well for her hair loss. She replaced her hat and the pen and returned to class.
When she got home, Tiffany tore off the hat and ran to her mother’s room to show her the damage.
“What did you do!”
“Mom, I didn’t do anything. I don’t know what happened”
“Show me your fingers.”
Tiffany pulled her hands out of her pockets to show her mother. Peering at each finger, turning them in her hand, Tiffany’s mom clacked her tongue against her teeth. She set the raw, red hands down and shuffled down the hall in wedged flip-flops without a word. Mom returned with a pair of socks in one hand and nail clippers in the other. She forcefully pinched each finger and began pinging away at the nails with her clippers. Little shards of keratin became air born, hitting Tiffany in the face and the wall behind her head. They were sharp, these little fragments of fingernail. Her mom slid socks onto each hand, as though she were a baby.
“Go to bed.”
Not wanting to argue, Tiffany left her mother alone in the hall. She wandered back through the bathroom on the way to hers. The felt-tip circle she had drawn that afternoon still remained, but there was a slight ring outside of it—almost a little halo. Or ringworm, a little red ring outside of the clear, white circle in the center. With a sigh, she ran a gold toed, sock hand over the spot and finally admitted to herself that something was terribly wrong.
That night she dreamt of golden bracelets. Wrapped between a mustard yellow blanket and another pink one, she imagined bright chains twisting around her wrists. They were alive, breathing and growing, they worked up her arms and across her shoulders. They were beautiful. With her sock covered hands, she stroked the chains, and they sighed, happy. To thank her, they grew across her body, around her neck and down her legs.
Sweating and startled, she woke without knowing what to think. Tiffany tossed the blankets off and watched the moonlight play across her arms. She stretched them overhead until her belly felt taut and ran her hands between where the mattress met the floor. Between the two, right beneath where her hips lay, she felt something. Tiffany retracted her hand and slid the socks off. She leaned over the edge of the mattress and carefully brought her hands down to the floor. She dug a hand underneath the mattress and pulled. It was just like the dream.
She turned two golden bracelets between her fingers. They were soft, not chains, but something else. The bracelets flexed under the pressure of the pads of her fingers. Tiffany slid her wrists through the bands, one on either wrist. The moon reflected on strands and she realized– this was her hair.