By A. Webster
Content Warnings: Childhood memories of emotional abuse, false accusations of drug use.
Her hands disappeared into coarse, straw-textured coils – long, manicured nails gently scratching the young woman’s scalp as she separated the hair into sections.
‘You’re new around here,’ the beautician said, grabbing a fistful of hair.
The young woman’s gaze dropped into her lap while she fiddled with the black cape that surrounded her. By the time she mustered a reluctant nod, the beautician had already placed a claw clip and moved on to separating the next section.
Bubblegum popped and slid between a gap in the beautician’s teeth. ‘Welcome to town.’ She worried the young woman’s split ends and fairy knots between her fingers. ‘What would you like done?’
The young woman shrugged.
While the beautician waited for an answer, she turned away and slid shears halfway into her apron pocket, leaving the handle easily accessible. The sun glinted off the top of them, causing the young woman to squint. ‘Trim a couple inches. I guess.’
The beautician leaned down; a sugary waft of pineapple-banana breath permeated the young woman’s nostrils. ‘Would you like your memories done too?’ she asked with a voice so soft it barely tickled the young woman’s ear.
With her knuckles, the young woman wiped the moisture of welling tears off the bags beneath her eyes. She nodded.
Sweat moistened the sheets beneath the young woman’s back as she fanned herself. Annoyed by the pool of her own secretions, she sat up. She reached for a glass on her nightstand, still containing a residue of pulpy liquid that barely covered the bottom. She swirled it and set it down. She tiptoed to her bedroom door and leaned against it – hoping for silence. Instead, she heard her mother stomping towards the kitchen, followed by the crash of several dishes being flung against the wall.
She returned to the glass, tapping the upturned bottom as the sludge slowly slipped into her mouth.
Desperately thirsty, she creaked the door open. Then the yelling began. Not at her this time. At nothing. At life.
Carefully, she pressed the door so it only made a small click as it latched shut, sealing her inside her room.
Once again, she turned the glass to her lips. She lapped furiously at the remaining morsels, cleaning the sides of the glass with her tongue and fingers until there was nothing left.
Then she waited, hidden in her room until it seemed safe enough to venture downstairs.
She was wrong.
It wasn’t safe.
She was never safe.
The beautician observed the scene unfolding like a spectre in the young woman’s consciousness.
Once she had seen enough, her delicate hands made quick work, piecing fragments of porcelain back together. The pads of her fingers repaired cracks like glue, her grasp firing like a kiln until each dish ascended into the cabinet of fine china.
The beautician smiled as she watched the now-peaceful domestic scene.
Unperturbed, the young woman poured juice from the refrigerator as she had intended when she entered. And her mother left the kitchen with composure, carrying an unfractured plate in hand.
But the memory sensed the shift and became angrier and stronger, searching for alternate pathways to preserve itself in its original, jagged, traumatising form. Newly formed neural connections snaked around the beautician’s fingers, lighting up the young woman’s brain like a summer storm.
The beautician’s smile sublimated into a frown, like ice in an inferno. She watched neurones creep around the young woman’s brain like a vine, snagging emotions from other memories as fuel for their fury. The tendrils gathered the bleakest, most soul-crushing sentiments as fodder, until suddenly—
The air filled with the venomous screech of a mother’s loathing, a viper’s tongue flicking false accusations at her daughter. Her hands snatched a fistful of the salt the beautician had seen her defile the countertops and floor with moments before. She held the crystals up to her daughter and asked, ‘Why are you leaving your meth all over the house?’
The young woman sulked away from her mother and acknowledged her through gritted teeth. ‘I already told you, I’m not doing meth.’
A burbling volcano of rage erupted, furious at her daughter’s audacity. She ripped open cabinet doors with enough force to separate them from their hinges.
As the screws splintered from the wall, the memory transformed into a supernatural maelstrom of raw emotions, wholly detached from the physical reality of past events.
The beginnings of the memory had hummed through the beautician’s fingers like electricity, but with this cosmic shift, shocks stung her hands. To gain a moment of reprieve, she returned to trimming the young woman’s hair, but only until the neuropathy dissipated. Then she steeled herself to plunge her hands back into the abyss.
Cabinet doors clattered off one another, with dishware hailing down from above. The fine china shattered, one after another, after another. Until there was no more. The vortex of destruction continued until the kitchen lay in ruins. And with a final cacophonous crescendo, the mother splashed juice in the young woman’s face before slamming the glass onto the ground and stomping it into fragments.
The young woman stood silently, dripping awe and juice, devoid of shock.
The voltage of electricity still coursed through the beautician’s hands and intensified in step with the mother’s outbursts. Still, she slid her nails between the synapses and preened each neurone, one by one.
Anguish tore at her skin, causing it to split and bleed. She drew a long breath, only then realizing she’d swallowed her gum, and exhaled across the backs of her hands to soothe them. Sweat beaded as she worked through the pain. She wiped her brow with shaky fingertips and dried them on her apron.
Finally, she found what she needed.
Cowering in the corner. Covered in the cobwebs of disremembrance. Of repression – the young woman’s complete denial that such a memory could exist among the others. The beautician found a recollection of a different tenor.
A gentle hug of motherly love.
It wasn’t much, but it would do.
She polished the memory with her thumb. Then continued her pruning.
The young woman must have dozed off at some point. She woke with a jolt to thousands of tiny fragments of hair dancing on the floor. The chair spun to face the mirror, and the young woman met her own gaze, then looked beyond into her mind’s eye. She searched but couldn’t find why she’d left home in the first place. There was only a memory of her mother’s embrace as they stood in a faraway driveway. Her mother had fought back tears and wished her well. But she hadn’t returned the emotion.
She watched, perplexed, as her former self responded to her mother’s grief by getting in her car and driving away.
With a blink, her eyes returned to focus. She slowly reached her hand to touch her downy coils, now cropped close to her head.
Expressionless, she turned to face the beautician.
‘I said two inches.’
A. Webster is a screenwriter, novelist and short story writer whose edgy and often satirical style strives to push audiences out of their comfort zones so they can connect with their deepest emotions. In addition to writing, she is a full-time pharmacist. She lives in Oregon with her husband, daughter, two cats and one dog.