Alter Ego

Jackie asked to dye her hair orange during the summer of seventh grade. Her father stared, mouth half-open, eyes seeing through her for what seemed like a long time. But he finally agreed with a silent nod.

She reached up and wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. Frozen in whatever mental fog gripped him, there were too many heartbeats before she felt him caress the back of her head. He’d probably never expected her to ask for something so, well, crazy, but he had to know she’d at least considered it.

A few years ago, her father had decided to give her an allowance. Even then, at ten years old, she’d grown tired of living in a weedchoked laundry basket of a house slated for a dustbunny breeding program. After long hours at work, her father was exhausted. Most often, he’d drop down on the sofa with a beer and tune out everything but the television.

She understood.

So, she started cleaning—learned how, after a few dozen shrunken t-shirts and pink socks, to do the laundry. The dishes. She even conquered her fear of the vacuum cleaner. Sure, she’d screamed the entire time, racing around the house as if she held a live animal, but she’d gotten the job done. After that, she took on the lawnmower, an even scarier monster. But she was brave. Brave, because that’s what Ember would be.

Once she’d saved enough money and gotten up the nerve to let her dad in on her secret desire, she raced triumphantly to her room and launched into the air. She always clung to the moment when her feet left the ground, pretending she could control the thermals, change their density to let her tiny frame float. She never could, of course, but she landed on her bed, giddy with excitement about her coming change.

Above, the ceiling was papered with news clippings and magazine pages. There, in those spaces, Jackie did fly. One of the pictures in particular always held her attention.

Ember, the flame wielding Augment, soaring through the skies of Chicago on a pillar of fire.

Her costume was made of thick, shimmery material which could withstand the intense heat. A heat that could set the air on fire, burn through the outer shell of a battle tank, and melt guns into puddles.

If Jackie could have any power, it would be Ember’s.

But the fireproof costume didn’t explain the hair. Ember’s mask covered her entire face. A sleek visor, sort of like a medieval knight, but no holes for her eyes. Behind that, a brilliant orange mane flowed in a stripe down her head. Her powers kept her from frying her head, Jackie thought. Precise control of the heat. Too bad Dad hadn’t also agreed to the mohawk.

“Are you ready?” her dad stood in the doorway of her bedroom, keys in hand. He was trying to smile, but his eyes were worried. He always looked like that.

“Yep, yep!” She leapt to her feet on the bed and bounded toward him.

Excitement coursed through her and she knew her face was plastered in the world’s goofiest grin, but she didn’t care. And exactly like she hoped, he snatched her off the ground as she got to the door, his distant expression transformed by her joy.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

She smacked his shoulder. “Of course I want to do this.” He laughed and lowered her to the ground. “Besides,” she added, “this is your fault.”

The distant look returned. “Why do you say that?”

“You’re the one that watches Ember all the time.”

“Do not.” He forced a smile.

“Do, too! Every time she’s on the news you can’t look away.” She poked a finger in his chest. “Somebody has a crush.”

“Come on, now.” He started down the hall, fidgeting with the keys.

“Admit it! You do!”

“Stop. Let’s go before I change my mind.”

They hopped in the truck and made their way into town. They stopped at the grocery store first. Jackie complained, but Dad was right, they actually did have things like hair coloring kits. But the shelf held only an autumn sort of red, nothing like Ember orange. She even asked a bald, sullen-looking employee if they had the color, exactly like that, “Ember orange”. He shook his head and went back to pushing a ragged mop across the floor.

They tried several stores and were about to give up when Jackie spotted a salon. She’d never been in one. Her and her dad both went to the Clip Shack, which she didn’t mind. The stylists were always excited to see her. She felt a bit like Ember, those days—a touch of the famous Augment’s celebrity. She swelled with pride as they fawned over her, the only other girl in the place. The excitement always waned when she asked for something “easy”.

“A phase,” they’d say sympathetically. “She’ll grow out of it.”

“Aren’t there any boys you like?”

Gross. Ember didn’t like boys. At least, Jackie didn’t think so.

The salon looked fancy. Cursive lettering on the windows, she couldn’t even read the name. The posters with models pointing their chins at the sky made her cringe. Their hair was all silky and smooth and perfectly colored.

“There!” Jackie pointed, before they’d driven past.

“Are you sure?”

She nodded.

When Jackie and her father walked in, they weren’t staring down a row of barber’s chairs facing little TVs looping Sportscenter. She didn’t even see any chairs. A reception desk decorated with smooth, turquoise stones stood in front of a chocolate brown wall displaying the same cursive lettering as the windows. A girl with perfect hair, like the posters, and razor-sharp lips and eyebrows pulled herself away from a cell phone.

“Welcome to Sante. Do you have an appointment?”

“Nope.” Jackie said before her dad could speak. “I want my hair colored. Maybe you have a kit?”

“We don’t sell ‘kits’,” the girl’s skypointed chin dipped to her collarbone when she said the word. “But we might have a stylist available.” She rose and disappeared around the wall. Jackie walked toward the partition, swinging her shoulders like the receptionist.

“Jackie.” Her dad sounded stern, but maybe partly amused.

“What?”

The receptionist rounded the corner with another girl behind her. She was young, and her hair was silky too, but a broad swath of it was deep purple on one side and shaved tight to her scalp on the other. Somehow, Jackie thought, the snooty receptionist had found the perfect person.

“Hello.” The stylist extended her hand and Jackie took hold. She wasn’t much taller than Jackie, but the tight lines of her jeans made her legs appear endless. Her white sleeveless t-shirt hung like a shredded rag and black lace peeked through the holes alongside bare skin.

When the stylist raised her eyebrows, Jackie realized she’d been staring. “I’m Becca. You are?”

Becca didn’t paint on her eyebrows or her lips. The natural lines suggested perfection enough. That and her smile made Jackie’s cheeks flush.

“This is Jackie.” She felt her father’s hand on her shoulder. “She wants to color her hair.”

“That so.” Becca eyed Jackie and tapped her lip with her finger. “I can probably help you out. What were you thinking?”

It was the finger on her lip. Jackie couldn’t erase the image.

“Well?”

“Ember orange,” said her father. Becca’s face twisted in confusion and he stuttered out an explanation. “Like the Augment, Ember.”

“Ah, so this is like an ‘I’m not fucking around’ orange?”

Jackie nodded.

Her father choked out a reply. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“Got it. Come with me.”

Jackie followed, her father close behind. At the corner, Becca wheeled and brandished a finger in his direction. “Girls only,” she said with a wink.

Her father raised his hands in surrender and half-smiled. “All right. But no mohawks.”

Becca ran a hand through Jackie’s hair and pursed her lips. The touch made her scalp tingle and she swore she could feel it all the way down to her toes. “Yeah, no problem.”

They entered an open room with stylist’s stations peppering the space, each made up of a floating wall with a mirror and fancy wood cabinets facing a barber’s chair. Everything matched the earthy tones of the reception area. At each station, stylists hovered around customers, silver blades flickering between their fingers. This was not the humming assembly line of electric clippers like the Clip Shack. Here, women spoke and laughed. A few sat alone reading magazines, oblivious to the strange chair-mounted bubbles floating over their heads. Jackie almost asked what they were, but she hoped she wouldn’t have to speak. Normally, according to her teachers at school, she didn’t have a problem with speaking, but Becca had left Jackie tongue-tied.

Becca motioned to a chair, and Jackie sat.

“Sure you don’t want a mohawk?”

“No.” Jackie wished Becca would stop smiling, but at the same time, she knew she’d miss it. “My dad.”

“Yeah, I know.” Becca pouted and whipped an apron around Jackie’s neck. “You’d look kickass with one.”

Jackie felt her cheeks flush and she checked the mirror in time to watch them blossom. A hand lightly touched her chin and kept her from hiding her face. Those unadorned eyes were examining her again and Jackie looked up at the ceiling to avoid contact.

“Orange, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Cool. Let’s get started.”

From that moment, Jackie was lost in a world of odd sensations. The warm water from the faucet as Becca washed her hair was exhilarating, but not nearly as much as the pull of slender fingers along her scalp. All the while, Becca hovered over her, her loose shirt dangling open. Things stirred inside Jackie—things that made her drive her stubby nails into the arm of the chair.

Next, they returned to the station, and Becca brushed on globs of dye that looked nothing like orange, but Jackie didn’t protest. Becca worked while wrapping strands of hair in foil slips, like leftover pizza. Her playful side tucked away, Becca took to her job with a laser-guided stare. So focused, Jackie finally started to relax. All Becca’s staring and examining had been part of the process, she told herself. Checking her hair out, not her.

“Your mom cool with this?” Becca muttered as she brushed on more of the dye.

“My mom’s not really around.” Jackie didn’t normally tell people this—it was really none of their business, but despite her awkwardness around Becca, she felt she could trust her.

“Oh, sorry.”

“Not a big deal,” said Jackie. She had an urge to sound grown up. “Long time ago.”

Becca nodded and fixed on a palette of foil. “What’s it with this Ember chick? You into Augments?”

“I guess. Well, not really.” Augments weren’t a “girl thing” and Jackie was always stumbling with what to say when people asked. If Mrs. Curren, her history teacher, were to be believed, they were weapons. Living weapons created by the world’s superpowers. Only boys thought weapons were cool.

As she watched the skull-shaped ring on Becca’s finger move in and out of her field of vision, she thought of how stupid she was being. Becca wasn’t about to pass judgment.

“I just think she’s, well, great,” Jackie sputtered.

“Great, huh?” Becca sounded unimpressed.

“Well, my dad thinks so, too. He’s always reading about her, watching her on the news.”

“Not creepy,” Becca mumbled, lost in her work. Jackie waited to see if she was going to apologize, but she didn’t, so Jackie took it in stride.

“No, nothing like that. He’s got a crush.” She stopped at telling Becca about the news clippings on the ceiling of her room. How half of them had come from the trash Dad set out late one night after he’d had too many beers. The next morning, Jackie found the box full of pictures and stories by the curb. So carefully clipped and kept flat with crisp edges, they felt like something he cared about. He never asked what happened to the box. Even when he saw the clippings on her ceiling months later, he still didn’t say a word, only stared.

Becca nodded, biting her lip as she applied another stroke. “Okay, so, he’s got a crush. What about you?”

“I don’t know. I sorta get her, you know? She’s always standing up to the rogue Augments, helping people. I want to be like that.” She almost added “when I grow up”, but stopped herself.

Several more coats of color went on before Becca pulled out of her work to ask another question. “So, say Crimson Mask and Ember get in a fight, who wins?”

Now Becca was being stupid. Crimson Mask was maybe the most powerful Augment ever. “They don’t fight. But if they did, Ember all the way.”

“Yup,” Becca barked. “Girl power, baby.” She extended her fist for a bump then slumped back to examine her work. “Okay, I think we got it.”

“Now what?”

“I clean this up, you get to sit and wait,” Becca said, gathering her supplies. “I’ll be right back.”

Jackie felt the tension drain from her body. She again almost wished it had stuck around.

She didn’t have to wait long. Before she knew it, Becca was back and they were at the sink again, rinsing her hair. Fast and efficient, the earlier exhilaration was lost and Jackie began to feel anxious about seeing her hair free from the foil nest. When they returned to the station, Jackie stood in front of the mirror.

“Can we dry it?”

“Let it air dry. I promise, you’ll love it.”

“Oh, I love it now!”

Becca moved up behind her, gathering Jackie’s hair into the sculpted ridge or a mohawk. “Yep, that would be hot. Want me to talk to your dad?”

Jackie felt her cheeks burn again. “No, thanks. He’ll need to get used to this first.”

He’d been shocked when she returned to the waiting room, but not half as shocked as when the receptionist rang them up. Jackie spread her allowance on the counter to fill the silence, and he eventually paid the difference, even leaving Becca a tip that earned them both a wink. This time, Dad blushed too, and she understood.

Later that day, when the breeze from the open windows on the Jeep and Jackie’s rushing around the house jumping across the furniture or leaping onto her bed had dried the last strand of hair, she dropped next to him on the couch and shook his arm to pry him from the glow of the television.

“Well, do I look like her?”

Jackie didn’t understand why his red eyes grew damp. He took a swig of his beer before answering. “Yeah, baby. Just like her.”



Categories: Free Fiction, Podcast

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