The split began at the top of Tatiana Chianti’s mass of over-styled blond curls, continued down to cut through her thick-lashed, pouty-lipped face, tore between her far too big you-know-whats before slicing though the rest of her scantily clad body. The loud, crisp sound of the waxy magazine paper ripping in half was music to Elka Doom’s ears, bringing the first smile she’d had all morning to her lips. The smile widened as she stacked the torn halves of Ms. Chianti’s image on top of each other and repeated the process horizontally, effectively drawing and quartering the model the way they used to back in The Old Days, when such a punishment was common for criminals of that time.
“Oops,” she giggled, satisfaction derived from the petty act making her giddy. “How clumsy of me. Sorry Nils, maybe you can tape her back together?” She flung her hands out and let go of the pieces, watching gleefully as they fell into the stream she stood before. “Oh no!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands to her cheeks in mock shock. “I totally didn’t mean to do that at all!” Her eyes followed the paper scraps as they floated down the stream until they eventually disappeared from view. “Oh well.” She turned, her eyes falling upon the tree behind her, the name of her ex carved into uneven letters on the trunk. “I guess you’ll have to find some other way to be a pig,” she told it.
She grinned smugly at the tree, her back straight and her hands on her hips, feeling very much like an empowered woman. Unfortunately, her triumph did not last long, as a feeling of melancholy quickly washed away any power she had obtained from the vengeful act. Looking at the letters, the way the ‘I’ was set lower than the ‘N’ and ‘L’, at the way the ‘S’ looked more like a backward ‘Z’ than the letter it was intended to be made Elka’s heart clench painfully, and her hand flew to her chest as though that could soothe it. Her gaze drifted down to the plus sign and the lone ‘E’ below it. The rest of her name was not there, as Nils’ hand had cramped up before he could complete the inscription. “I’ll finish it later, baby,” he had promised as she massaged his aching hand between her fingers. A promise he had not kept, since they had broken up not long after.
She cut her eyes away, blinking back at the tears that had formed there against her will. There was nowhere that she could look without some memory cropping up to pluck at her heart strings. There, to the right, was where Elka had allowed him to French kiss her for the first time. Not far from that spot were the remains of a bulbless flower that Nils had hastily plucked out of the ground to give her as a present. Even the high branches of the oaks were not safe, for was that not where she had psi-blasted a rogue squirrel who had besmirched her love’s honor by hurling an acorn at that golden bowl-cut she adored so much?
Coming here, to their special spot by the creek, had been a mistake. She pulled the handkerchief her grandmother had made for her out of her pocket and dabbed delicately at her eyes. It was where her feet had taken her after she had discovered the magazine page underneath Nils’ pillow. By accident, of course- snooping had not been her intention when she had crept into the boy’s cabin while everyone else had been at breakfast. She had only wanted to deliver a letter to Nils’ mother and the safest place for it was tucked away in Nils’ bedding, where the prying eyes and sticky fingers of his bunkmates could not get to it. Finding the pin-up had been shocking; Elka had certainly not been expecting to see something so salacious this early in the morning. But the shock had not lasted long; she knew that her ex was exactly the sort of person who would enjoy ogling such material late at night.
Disposing of the lewd woman had seemed to be the correct course of action from both a moral and personal standpoint at the time. But now, as she stood by the swift stream, listening to the squirrels scurrying about in the grass and the bees in a nearby hive buzz, she wondered if she had done the right thing. Maybe he had that under his pillow because that model reminded him of me. We do kind of look alike. Elka looked down at her shoes, something that Ms. Chianti could not easily do with her generous assets. Well, maybe we’re not exactly twins, but our eye and hair color are the same...maybe he really does miss me… She shook her head, flinging those thoughts away. No, no, no! Do not fall back into this trap again! You are done with that P-I-G! Across the stream, a butterfly was taking a mid-morning meal, flitting from one flower to the next. I’ve gotten everything worth getting from Nils, she thought as she observed the butterfly feeding. And now I’ve moved on to the next flower. Er, I mean man. James’ nectar is much sweeter than Nils’ ever was.
Really, she ought to be with him right now, not standing alone at this spot that no longer meant anything to her. That’s the last time I’ll ever think about Nils, she vowed as she marched back down towards the Main Lodge, her shoes crunching on twigs and wet leaves. From now on, my focus will be on building a life with my true love, James Theodore Hoofburger.
The realization that she did not actually know where her James would be during this time of day did not dawn upon her until she was just about out of the forest. Breakfast was over and classes had not yet started, for the first few days of camp were usually spent getting everyone settled in (rumour had it that they were still waiting on the arrival of some transfer student from Russia to arrive), so he could not be with any of the counselors. The Main Lodge was a possibility, for that was where most campers congregated during the day. But James was an outdoorsy type, the sort of rugged fellow who would prefer roughing it in the great outdoors to being cooped up inside. But where in camp could he be? Elka thought, reaching up to her head to scratch it before jerking her hand away (mother always said that scratching one’s scalp was the worst thing you could do to it-”Do you want people thinking you have dandruff?”).
She paused, looking all around the surrounding forest area, hoping to catch sight of her boyfriend’s cowboy hat somewhere in the mix of brown bark and green, leafy branches. No such luck- all she saw was the voluminous afro of Melvin Sweetwind, her man’s best friend. He was sitting alone on a bench a few feet down the path, strumming out a mindless tune on that guitar of his. Elka was not an expert on music but the short ditties he played seemed too disconnected to be apart of a specific song, leading her to believe that he was only keeping his fingers busy while he waited for someone else to arrive. Her eyes narrowed, for she suspected that she knew exactly who that person was.
There was only one way to know for sure. She walked over to where Melvin sat, taking great care to school her expression into something resembling friendly. She did not try to muffle her approach, and he noticed her presence once she crossed half of the distance that separated them. His eyes also narrowed, much in the same way that her’s had moments before, but unlike her, he did not bother to replace his glare with a less irritated look when she came to a stop before him. So much for those Canadian Manners, she thought, scoffing internally at Melvin’s display of hostility.
Externally, she adopted a more cheery disposition. “Hello, Melvin,” she began, taking care to add a little sugar to sweeten her tone, “have you seen James?” She paused for half a second, then added, “he said he was going to meet me here, so that we could take a nice walk by the ‘crick.’” She sighed, wishing that it were true- imagine the look on Nils’ face if were to see her and her new beau arm-in-arm and heading towards their old make-out spot. “Isn’t that romantic?” she asked, batting her eyelashes.
“Sounds delightful,” he replied, lip curling up in distaste, “but why are you here?”
The question took Elka aback. “Um, because this was where we were going to meet?” she said sharply, her smile falling away in an instant. Her eyes met his, her own annoyance reflected back at her in his hazel eyes.
Melvin raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Really?” he said, a challenge in each syllable.
Elka covered up her wince with an indignant huff. “Yes really. Why on Earth would I lie?” Honestly, what was with this guy and his suspicions? He’d been side-eyeing her ever since she and James had begun dating, and for no reason at all! It’s like he thinks he should be James’ first priority instead of me! Doesn’t he know how relationships work? He’s even worse with women than Nils!
Melvin shook his head. “Never said that you were lying. But you do seem to be confused.” He looked away from her, focusing all of his attention on the tuning peg he had pinched between his fingers. “He told me that you guys were meeting at the cabins.”
Elka blinked, unsure if she’d heard Melvin right. “Wait, are you serious?” She couldn’t recall scheduling a date with James at all yesterday, and she was not one to forget details like that. But if I call him out, he’ll know that I was lying in the first place! Oh, what to do?
Her dilemma must have been playing out on her face, as Melvin appeared to be reveling in her discomfort. “Why would I lie?” he asked, giving her a smile so saccharine that Elka thought her teeth would rot just by looking at it. Because you’re a jerk who hates that James has found true love.
Outloud, Elka forced out a giggle. “Oh, I must have mixed up the meeting place! Silly me!” She rolled her eyes at her ‘mistake.’ “Sorry, James and I just make so many plans that it’s hard to keep track of them all!” She turned her head, nose pointing upward. “Well, I guess I better ‘mosey’ on over to the cabins. Won’t James find it funny when I tell him about what happened!”
“He’ll laugh so hard he might cough his lungs up,” Melvin replied dryly.
Elka wrinkled her nose as she turned. Ugh, how do boys come up with that kind of stuff? “I better not keep him waiting too long! Ta-ta!” she called as she began hurrying away. A devious idea struck her once she’d put a few feet of distance between them, and she spun on her heel. “Oh!” she said, squinting at Melvin in a scrutinizing manner.
Melvin stiffened. “What?”
“Nothing!” Elka said, gesturing at his hair. “I thought I saw something moving in there, but maybe that’s just the way your hair looks. Bye!” She rushed off before he could retort, proud of herself for getting the last word in.
There was no way for her to know if Melvin had told her the truth regarding James’ whereabouts. She actually doubted that he would be upfront with that kind of information if he did know. Her feet carried her off towards the cabin area anyway, for she had an inkling Melvin had pointed her in the right direction, albeit unintentionally. James was madly in love with her- this she knew from the way he got all nervous whenever she was near and by how he agreed with everything she said. Maybe they had not planned any sort of excursion for the day, but it certainly wouldn’t be out of the question for James to be waiting for her, pining alone on the steps of the ladies’ cabin with his head in his hands. What a sweet man, she thought as she passed by the Main Lodge. If only Nils could take a page out of James’ book...well, he’s probably lurking around the cabins like a weirdo again. He’ll see what happens when a guy treats a girl right!
She broke into a jog, a giddy anticipation bubbling within her at the notion of making her old flame envious of how much brighter her new flamed burned. By the time she made it to the bridge, her jog had become a run (which subsequently turned back into a jog when it began to sway worryingly as she crossed it). She hustled across the yard, her arms swinging at her sides, the exertion turning her face a pretty shade of pink. With one leap she cleared the first two steps that led up to the girl’s cabin and burst through the door, nearly breathless. “I’m here!”
As she’d been rushing to her destination, she’d had an image in her mind of a young man sighing forlornly as he sat upon the bunk of his beloved. That man, of course, was James Theodore Hoofburger and nobody else, even if a malfunctioning part of her brain tried to replace him with a certain someone. Events after her arrival would proceed as follows: the young man would spring up exuberantly from the bunk and catch her up in his arms before she crossed the threshold. He would then reign himself in and kiss her chastely on the cheek (because James was not the sort of man who would grab her by the waist and try to shove his tongue down her throat; something she definitely did not have fond memories of someone else doing!).
Reality, however, had little interest in complying with Elka’s imagination. Although there was somebody in the cabin, they were not on her bunk, nor were they her man (or any man at all for that manner) and they certainly weren’t waiting for her. Far from it, actually. The tiny girl didn’t even say hello or wave; a quick glance in her direction was about as much acknowledgment as she bothered to give.
Confusion prevented disappointment and indignation from slamming into her. The girl was one of the new Tender Brains (Carrie? Cleo?) and she was kneeling on what Elka presumed to be her own bed, that weird helmet she always wore positioned on her lap so that the side with the screen faced out. One hand was holding the helmet in place while the other scrubbed the back furiously with what had to be one of Janitor Cruller’s rags.
Mother always said that openly staring at even a very strange person was rude, but Elka could not stop herself from doing so in this case. She had never seen this girl without the space helmet on her head- Nils had said something about her needing it because of asthma, but Elka did not like it when he talked about other girls and had forced him to change the subject. What she saw now though made her wince. The color was pretty enough- a blond a shade darker than her own- but it was such a mess that it made Elka’s fingers comb through her own hair in sympathy. The length was about right for a pixie cut, which would have looked quite cute, but there was no bounce to it at all, the strands laying flat when they were not tangled. The ends were already beginning to split and the one adornment- a cute pink bow at the back of her head- seemed likely to fall off with any sudden movement. Well, she must certainly need that helmet to live, if she’s willing to put up with that disaster!
Elka shook her head, pitying the poor girl for the state of her hair as she looked around for evidence of her beau’s prior presence in the cabin. She could not find any- her bunk was as neatly made as it had been when she let, with no evidence that anyone had recently sat on it. It seemed likely that Melvin had lied to her about James, and right to her face no less. Anger flared up within her but she bit her lip and smothered it down. Her tendency to jump to conclusions had gotten her into trouble more than once; had in fact been one of the reasons that Nils had broken their relationship off (not that she was upset about that! Best thing to have ever happened to her!) Perhaps her James had not wanted to wait inside the girl’s cabin; a gentleman like him might think it a forbidden zone for a fellow. For all she knew he might have just peeked in to see if she was in here before taking himself off to a more appropriate place to wait, like the Coach’s treehouse.
Maybe he had left a message with this little girl with the sad hair. “Hey, um…” Elka paused, waving awkwardly as she struggled to recall her name. It’s something with a C...or maybe it was a K? Darn, if only my mind reading was as good as my future sight. “You wouldn't have happened to have seen my boyfriend, would you?”
The girl looked up, her grey-green eyes making very brief contact with Elka’s before she bowed her head forward and shoved the helmet back on. She then tilted her head back up, the expression on her face obscured by her helmet’s orange-tinted screen. “Greetings, fellow cadet,” she said, her tone flat but not unfriendly. “I cannot say that I have seen any males of your species in the last few minutes.” She tapped the side of her head contemplatively, her finger making a soft ‘thunk’ on the helmet. “Although, I must be honest. I am not sure which one of these Earth primates is the one you consider your ‘boyfriend’” she continued, using air quotes on the last word.
The path between her mouth and her brain must have had some kind of short-circuit, for Elka’s lips immediately began to form the name of the boy who had dumped her. “N-” She clamped her mouth shut before she could say anymore. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s like when the new year starts and you keep writing the old year for the date...just a force of habit. “My boyfriend’s name is James,” she insisted, “And he loves me with all of his heart!”
The girl cocked her head to her side. “I am not familiar with this ‘James’” she admitted. “Please elaborate further.”
That, Elka was more than happy to do. “He’s the sweetest boy in the world! He’s the only guy in this camp who knows how to treat a woman with proper respect! Unlike some people he doesn’t go around looking at every girl who passes him by! He also doesn’t try to put his hands in your back pocket; actually, he won’t try to touch you at all! You have to make him do it! And he doesn’t try to get you to skip camp meetings to do something fun, and he definitely wouldn’t risk getting in trouble with the Coach by sneaking over to your cabin in the middle of the night.” Something poked her in the chest- she remembered that night, remembered how Nils had shaken her awake to take her to the lake for a quiet walk on the beach, just the two of them. Sure he’d blown it at the end by getting a little too fresh with her, but up until that point it had been one of the most romantic dates she’d ever been on. But that was done now- the good times she’d had with Nils were far outnumbered by the bad, and she was so overjoyed to put it all behind her that she wanted to scream it from the rooftops!
The girl shifted, the bunk creaking with her movement. Elka realized that she had gone quiet during her reminiscing and scrambled to find something further to say about James. “He...also holds the door open for me!” And for everyone else, but Elka didn’t see the point in mentioning that.
“That information was not helpful in the least,” the girl said, her bluntness taking Elka aback. “Excuse my rudeness, but perhaps describing who he is instead of who he isn’t would be more enlightening.”
Elka rolled her eyes. “He’s the cowboy!” she said, exasperated.
“Ah.” The girl nodded, the helmet bobbing with the movement of her head. “You were talking about J.T.”
Elka frowned, grinding her teeth in annoyance. “He prefers to be called James.”
“I had not heard him say that,” the girl replied.
“Well it’s true!” Elka insisted, her fists clenching. “And make sure you let everyone know that!” She looked back behind her, hoping to see James approaching to take her on their date. But there was nobody around except a few squirrels, and unless they were carrying a message from her James, she had no interest in any of them. “So you really haven’t seen him?” she asked, swiveling her head back towards the girl.
She shook her head. “Negative.”
Anger erupted in Elka’s stomach. Damn it, she’d been had! Really, she should have known better than to take Melvin at his word- didn’t mother always say that Canadians weren’t to be trusted? “Oh dear!” she said, attempting to affect a tone of levity. “James and I must have missed each other!” She giggled and waved her hand nonchalantly, as though it were no big deal. “Gosh, how funny is this? I’ve been all over this camp trying to find him and I would bet all my arrowheads that he’s been doing the same for me!” She rolled her eyes and smiled, her teeth grinding together hard behind her closed lips. “He can’t stand to be away from me, you know? If we’re apart for too long, he’ll start to worry!”
“Fascinating.” The girl reached under her helmet to tap her chin. “My prior observation of that Earthling led me to believe that he preferred the human with the second largest mass of hair, since they are both musically inclined.”
Elka balked, offended to her very core. “No, that’s not right at all!” She stomped on the floor indignantly, the sharp thump of her foot hitting the wood making the girl jump. Pure fury was pulsing through her veins, but Elka forced herself to calm down. Get a grip, she thought as she inhaled through her nose and exhaled through her mouth. Don’t let that jerk Melvin make you look bad in front of this Tender Brain. An idea struck her then. “It’s true that James allows Melvin to hang around him,”she explained, talking very slowly and enunciating carefully, “but that’s only because Melvin has no other friends. James is so nice that he lets Melvin tag along with him, even when he would prefer to be alone with me.” Elka nodded, having now convinced herself this was true because she had said it.
The girl mulled the information over for a moment. “So what you are saying is that J.T.- James- let’s Melvin accompany him everywhere out of a sense of pity rather than friendship.”
“That’s right,” Elka said, hoping the girl would spread the story around.
“Interesting,” the girl said, awed. “Human interpersonal relationships have so many different dynamics.”
“Um, yeah.” The way this girl spoke sort of weirded Elka out- she sounded more like a scientist from a movie than a seven year-old. Not that she would ever say it to the girl’s face, she was not a bully. “James is probably missing me terribly right now,” Elka said, backing up a step towards the exit, “so I better be off. It was nice talking to you, um…”
“I have been designated Chloe by my parental units.”
I knew it was something with a C! “Chloe, right! I’ll see you later,” Elka said, waving absently as she turned to leave.
Elka barely heard the girl’s farewell as she stomped down the rickety steps, the wood giving slightly under the hard slam of her feet. She already knew exactly what she was going to do: first she was going to march straight back to that weasel Melvin and call him out on his lies (using her fist to do so). Then she would locate her James and spend the rest of the day parading him around the campgrounds, his hand locked firmly into her own. That would surely establish to all of the skeptics that she and James were completely in love and utterly devoted to one another. She suspected that she would be able to accomplish one goal right after the other, for if James truly was not searching for her, then that meant Melvin had tricked him into having yet another jam session with him.
Her righteous indignation did not carry her far from the cabin. The anger that had been running hot cooled, then dissipated into nothing, as though she’d been disconnected from her emotions. Elka stopped dead in her tracks, eyes staring straight ahead. Her hand flew to the back of her tingling head, her fingers clawing inward to scratch at her scalp. The scene before her blurred, the varied green and brown hues merging together before fading out to black.
Then color bled back in, forming another time and place. The Tender Brain- Chloe- was in front of her in the boathouse, the shadow of some out-of-sight figure flickering at the edge of Elka’s vision. Her face was scrunched up, tears running down her cheeks and snot from her nose. Pain creased her eyes into watery slits, and her lips trembled, looking as though they would burst with the sobs she was clearly struggling to hold back at any second.
Her hair, or rather, what was left of it, was a catastrophe beyond what Elka had ever exposed to previously. Half of it was gone, with some of the fallen strands adorning her t-shirt and shorts. The hair that remained was a greasy, stringy mess, and not likely to stay on her head for much longer. The skin on her scalp was an angry red, resembling the aftermath of a nasty burn.
A voice, faint and feminine, spoke. “I’m sorry, darling,” it said, reverberating in a way that made it impossible to tell who it belonged to. “But we are going to have to shave it all off.”
Elka came back to herself with a jolt, gasping in horror. The vision, while hardly the worst sight her powers had burdened her with, upset her deeply, to the point where her heart raced and anxiety twisted her stomach into knots. A girl’s hair contributed greatly to her overall beauty and health; Elka certainly knew that she was not at her best if her own hair was not perfectly coiffed. The current state of Chloe’s tresses implied that she did not yet fully grasp that concept, but that didn’t mean that she deserved to lose all of it! I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy! Or even Nils!
It was rare that Elka felt the desire to change what she saw in a vision. But her mind was screaming at her now to do something to alter the fate of the strange little girl’s follicles. Well, what can I do? she argued back. She had not seen the freak accident that had ruined Chloe’s hair, only the tragic aftermath. It might not have been an accident, Elka reasoned, tapping her foot on the ground and her finger on her chin as she thought. She wears that helmet all of the time, maybe it’s just going to catch up to her one day.
Elka smiled. If that was the case, then all that she would need to do was educate the girl on proper hair care! She won’t have a better teacher than me! Elka thought proudly, smacking her fist on her palm. Kitty might have better make-up skills, but when it comes to hair, I’ve got her beat! The anxiety in her stomach unwound itself and became bubbles of excitement floating upward. And what better time to show off those Amway products my mom told me to hand out?
Another vision came to Elka, this one a product of her imagination instead of her precognition. She saw Chloe, sans helmet, walking into the Main Lodge with a perfect, shiny ash-blonde pixie cut that bounced with every step she took. Everyone in the room looked upon her with awe as she passed by- even Chef Cruller paused in his burger-flipping to stare. “Chloe,” a wide-eyed Franke Athens said as she sat down at the table. “Something’s different about you!”
“It’s her hair,” Kitty clarified, too stunned to sound like her usual snooty self. “It looks...good. Great, even!”
“O-M-G!” Crystal would exclaim at the top of her lungs. “Chloe! What did you do?”
“Yeah, tell us!” Phoebe would add.
Chloe flipped her new and improved do in a casual manner. “Oh, this?” she said, the blunt roughness replaced with a high-pitched femininity. “This is all thanks to Elka Doom and her amazing assortment of Satinique hair care products, created by Amway and distributed by Independent Business Women.”
All eyes turned to Elka, sitting at the head of the table in a deep-red velvet chair. “My hair was a wreck before,” Chloe continued enthusiastically, “but then Elka showed up and taught me how to maintain a healthy head of hair, using nothing but Satinique products. I can now be the strong, smart, beautiful woman my mother always said that I could be.”
The girls gave out appreciative ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs’, with even the normally reticent Lili expressing her amazement. “Wow Elka, my mom was totally wrong for calling your mom a scammer!”
“So was mine!” Phoebe added. “Please, Elka, you have to let us try those miracle products of yours! Our mental health depends on it!”
Elka cocked her head to the side, appearing to think about it. Just when the anticipation became too much for her peers, she said, “well, I suppose that I have enough to go around,” a soft smile brightening her face. “We can have a little party in the girl’s cabin tonight. I’ll show you all of my samples and help you all see which ones will work best for your hair.”
The girls voiced their appreciation of this offer as a group, a collection of “Thanks Elka,” and “You’re the best!” echoing throughout the Main Lodge. As Elka was humbly basking in the glow of their gratitude, Nils manifested beside her seat. “Elka,” he said, sinking to his knees and taking her hand in his own. “I was a fool to have ever let you go. I’m going absolutely crazy with loneliness and regret.” His mouth quivered, and he made no effort to hide the tears glistening in his beautiful blue eyes. “Can you forgive me for being such a pig?” He squeezed her hand tightly, kissing the back of it.
Elka swiftly turned her gaze away from his, but did not try to free herself from his grasp. “It’s too late, Nils.” She heaved a deep sigh. “You broke my heart, but it’s already mended.”
Nils let out a plaintive wail. “Don’t say that!” he cried. “You have to give us another chance!” His hold on her slackened, then his hand slipped despondently to the ground along with the rest of him. “I can’t live without you,” he moaned, head bowed to the floor, body curled up in a sad little ball.
The girls regarded him with pity. “How sad for him,” Crystal said, shaking her head.
“It’s his own fault,” Chloe said, flipping her shiny bob in derision. “He should not have been so stupid.”
Kitty and Franke agreed. “We all said that he would regret his actions,” Kitty reminded everyone.
“Now look at him,” Franke said, pointing down at the pathetic wreck of a human being before them.
They were right. But Elka had been moved by the remorseful display; her heart stirred by the muffled sobs her ex could no longer contain. Though she was the woman he had wronged horribly, she decided that she would be the one to make the first move towards reconciliation. She rose from her chair, kneeling down next to Nils’ trembling form, running her fingers through his soft golden hair. “Your dandruff is back.”
Nils said nothing as he turned his head up to gaze upon her, silently awaiting her judgement. “But don’t worry,” she said, smiling warmly down at him. He gave her a small one in return. “I’ve got a shampoo that will fix that.”
The fantasy ended there, popping as though it were a balloon stuck with a needle. Elka spun on her heel and rushed back to the cabin. She was certain that changing the fate of that little Tender Brain would significantly improve the lives of everyone at the camp. Sorry James, she thought, not actually feeling all that sorry at all. But our date will have to be postponed!
Chloe is educated on Satinique Hair Care Products, brought to you by Amway!
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Chloe held the cylindrical container in her hand, reading the finely-printed list of ingredients. “And you are certain that this product does not require one to be wet in order for it to work?” she inquired, rotating the teal spray bottle so that the label faced her. In bold black, the letters spelled out Satinique Dry Shampoo.
The Earthling known as Elka nodded, leaning forward to tap the bottle with her finger. “It’s very easy to use. You just spray it directly onto your hair, then massage it down to the roots.” She combed through her own abudundent hair, her fingers sliding easily through the golden strands. The action would not have looked so smooth and effortless had Chloe mimicked it- too many tangles would have impeded the progress of her fingers. “The special formula absorbs the oil, giving your hair more volume and a vibrant shine.”
“Interesting.” Use of the word ‘vibrant’ stood out to Chloe. By definition, vibrant implied something lively, and Chloe knew from her studies of human anatomy that the long fibers which many females of this species extended so much care upon were actually the dead part of the follicle. Chloe wondered how Elka would react to this being pointed out to her. Negatively, she concluded. Chloe had ascertained from prior interactions with this specimen that she had a very hostile relationship with reality, and she did not appreciate having facts pointed out to her.
Indeed, conversing with this Earthing was like traversing through an asteroid belt. One misstep would send Chloe into a head-on collision with rage and defensive hysteria. She found that the best way to navigate through this perilous meeting was to allow Elka to do most of the talking. And talk she did, a barrage of words shot rapid fire from her mouth too quickly for Chloe to do more than interject with occasional expressions of engagement. The capacity of this human’s lungs allowed her to speak for far longer than other members of her species- even the camper known as Vernon paused to breathe every now and then.
Impressed as she was, Chloe was also experiencing a significant amount of frustration. Biting back the corrections and inquiries she very much wanted to make was difficult enough, but Elka appeared to be going out of her way to maintain eye-contact with her. This Earth-habit made Chloe exceedingly uncomfortable, and she was glad that she had her helmet to protect her from the brunt of Elka’s fervent gaze; otherwise she would not have been able to endure speaking with her for longer than a few minutes.
And endure it she must, if she wanted to establish friendly relations with this potentially useful human. According to the data Chloe had collected, Elka Doom’s primary psychic ability allowed her to see into the future; a skill that, if utilized correctly, would be highly beneficial to her mission. “This product is very suitable for my needs,” Chloe remarked. Research of human social interaction had shown her that the best way to ingratiate herself to an Earthling was to speak positively of things associated with them. And it was not as if Chloe was lying- a shampoo that did not require her to submit to the arduous process of bathing would make maintaining a satisfactory level of hygiene much easier.
“If you want, you can try it out right now,” Elka said, taking the bottle out of Chloe’s hand. “I can spray some right on you and you’ll notice an immediate difference.” She removed the white cap and set it beside where she knelt on the floor, then leaned towards Chloe with her arm outstretched. “If you’ll just take off the helmet, I’ll be able to demonstrate-”
The slap of both of Chloe’s hands on either side of her helmet cut the rest of Elka’s words off. “Negative,” she said, speaking more sharply than she had the previous two times she’d denied this human access to her unprotected head. Chloe did not enjoy using such a stern tone, for she had no desire to engender any hostility between herself and any of the natives of this planet. But this human’s continued disregard for the boundaries Chloe had set was grating on her nerves. There were plenty of cultural gaps that Chloe was willing to bridge- such as submitting to the light shoulder taps Elka bestowed upon her to the close proximity with which they sat- but removal of the helmet was a step too far outside of Chloe’s comfort zone. “I believe that I expressed the necessity of keeping my helmet on,” she said, speaking clearly so that the potential for misunderstanding would be reduced. “I will repeat it again for your benefit. My helmet is to remain on my person if this interaction is to continue.”
There had been no ambiguity in the statement. Despite that, Elka continued to gently prode Chloe into taking her helmet off, much to Chloe’s chagrin. “You wouldn’t buy a dress without trying it on first, would you?” she argued, plucking at the hem of her green shirt.
Elka’s argument was both baffling and ineffective. Chloe did not purchase her own clothing; that was a duty that had been delegated to her parental units. Naturally, Chloe answered with a negative, for that was the truth, and was subsequently further confused by Elka’s positive response. “Right! This is basically the same thing!” she said.
Chloe could not see how either idea was remotely related, aside from being two activities she was never going to engage in. Tempting as it was to combat the nonsensical point, Chloe decided that it would be less aggravating to let it go. “If you are so concerned about demonstrating this product, perhaps you could do so on your own hair.”
“I can’t do that!” Elka protested, outraged by the suggestion. “My hair is already clean and has plenty of volume.” She flipped the curled ends of her hair, which immediately fell back into place once her hand was done moving through it.
Elka’s hair was indeed very clean and very full. Chloe would have ranked her as having the third largest mass of hair in this camp, behind Chops (whom this human referred to as Melvin and did not seem to like very much) and the large, odd-smelling human male who had thrown a foul smelling brown substance at the back of her helmet earlier that day (a being who may very well be an alien much like herself, if his physical appearance was anything to go by). “Your hair is in that favorable state because you use the product that you are recommending,” Chloe said, gesturing at the dry shampoo.
“Oh!” Spots of pink appeared on Elka’s cheeks. A human’s face coloring in that manner indicated one of two things: attraction or embarrassment. Since she had not observed this Earthling expressing any sort of romantic preference for her own sex, Chloe had to assume that it was the latter that caused her cheeks to pinken so. She could not with any certainty say what had brought the embarrassment on, as all Chloe had done was make a hypothesis out loud. “O-of course,” Elka said, hastily putting the bottle back onto the floor. “I do use these, everyday in fact! You’re right, we don’t need to do a demo if you can already see the results right in front of you!”
Chloe hoped that would be the end of Elka’s attempts to remove her helmet. “What other samples do you have available?” she inquired. There was a large array of bottles and tubes spread out before them on a blanket; Elka had only shown her the conditioner and the dry shampoo so far. Chloe was not sure if any of them were as useful to her as the dry shampoo, but she figured that it could not hurt to learn about them. If anything, she would be able to catalogue some of the many items humans used to enhance their appearance. Cosmetic appeal is a very important aspect of human society, Chloe thought as Elka reached for a small vial. Human hair is vestigial from a biological perspective. And yet, much time and currency is spent maintaining and improving it, and humans with poor hair or who lack any hair at all are looked down upon. Interesting.
“This is Satinique Hair Oil Serum,” Elka said, holding the glass vial up. The sunlight streaming in from the window reflected off of the glass directly onto Chloe’s face. Yet another reason she was glad she had not allowed Elka to remove her helmet- the beam would have hit her right in the eye. “This serum will control frizz, add shine, and leave your hair feeling soft, sleek, and nourished.” Elka spoke in a pleasantly bland tone, as though the words she were using had been rehearsed many times.
Chloe regarded the vial with a raised eyebrow. The substance within it was clear, tinted a pale gold, and looked to be more viscous than water. “You say that it is an oil?”
Elka nodded. “It’s made of aragon, avocado, and Kukui seed oils,” she explained, “which promote hair health.”
Chloe recognized at least one of those ingredients as a food. “The combination of the dry shampoo and the hair oil seems contradictory,” she observed.
Elka’s face appeared to experience an involuntary spasm. It had only lasted a second but Chloe had seen her nose wrinkle, her lips purse, and her eyes narrow. Control over her facial features was swiftly regained, but her expression was altered- the smile bore more of her teeth, and her eyes had hardened, a layer of ice over a pond. “How so?” she asked.
In spite of her strange facial transformation, her voice sounded the same as always- friendly, with an undercurrent of self-righteousness. It made Chloe feel as though it was safe to elaborate. “The dry shampoo,” she pointed at the product in question, lying right by her knee, “is supposed to absorb the oil in my hair. What, then, is the purpose of putting a different sort of oil in my hair if the dry shampoo is just going to absorb it?”
Elka tittered in a way that Chloe could only describe as exceptionally patronizing. “Well, for one, you can’t use them at the same time.” She looked at Chloe the way that the instructor who had taught her at the Earth educational facility the previous year often had. That particular instructor had not thought much of Chloe’s intellectual abilities. “You spray the dry shampoo first. After it’s absorbed, you use the hair oil. The dry shampoo takes care of the bad, dirty oils, and this-” she held the vial up, “puts in the good, natural oils.”
“How long does this process take?” Chloe wanted to know.
“Ah…” Elka glanced away, her eyes looking to the upper right, though there was nothing there that Chloe could see. “That’s, um, something that varies from person to person.”
“I see.” Chloe thought that it sounded like more work than she wanted to commit to. Her people, she was quite sure, had little interest in their own hair outside of their basic hygienic needs. “Let us continue on to the next product.”
The next item was of little interest to Chloe, and she made that very clear so as to not mislead Elka. “I cannot see myself putting that to use,” she said after Elka presented her with a spray bottle of what she called ‘volumizing spray’. “There is no reason for me to increase the ‘body of my hair. It has to fit underneath my helmet.”
The Earthling was either unable or unwilling to believe Chloe. “Just try it,” she insisted, thrusting the bottle at her. “It’ll give your hair the bounce it desperately needs.”
“My hair does not need to bounce,” Chloe said as she tossed the bottle back to Elka, “in fact, I would prefer it if it did not do that at all.”
Elka persisted, slightly modifying the wording of her previous arguments until Chloe’s continued refusals wore her down. “Let’s just put this one in the ‘maybe’ pile,” she said, setting the spray down and picking up a white-capped silver tube. “This is Satinique’s Revitalizing Hair Mask.”
Chloe took the offered tube, pressing the plastic between her thumb and forefinger, leaving behind a small dent where she squeezed it. “I had associated the term ‘mask’ with coverings for the face,” she remarked. Humans certainly did enjoy playing around with their vocabulary.
Elka reacted in the way that Chloe had come to expect; by explaining what the product did in a manner that bordered on condescending. Again, Chloe told her that she did not need to ‘bring her hair back to life’, since most of it was technically already dead. Again, Elka tried to convince her otherwise, as if she thought that Chloe did not know her own mind. It was not the first time that Chloe had been forced to endure this off-putting variety of human communication. The official referred to as the ‘guidance counselor’ (a misnomer if there ever was one) had done the same thing, repeatedly insisting that Chloe was not an extraterrestrial in spite of all of the evidence she had put forth. The sessions she’d gone to had been very distressing, and she’d been glad when her parental units had put a stop to them after seeing that they were doing more harm than good. It is perhaps no coincidence that Mr. Palmer also thought that removing my helmet would be beneficial, even when I explained why that was not true.
“Don’t you want a head of beautiful, shiny hair?” Elka asked after Chloe rejected the next two items (a hair pomade and a deep cleanse conditioner). “Your life could improve tremendously! You’ll be so much happier!”
Chloe thought of the things that made her happy- building interstellar communication devices, designing spaceships, listening to her favorite Earth music, and watching the numerous, insightful documentary programs available on television (the humans called it ‘reality television’)- and could not see how any of those activities were connected to the condition of her hair. “That may be true of an Earth female such as yourself. On my planet, however, one’s hair has little to do with the quality of one’s life, and as such, tending to my follicles beyond the level of basic hygiene would just be a waste of time.”
Elka’s face did not twitch as it had previously. That may have been because her facial muscles had locked themselves into a stiff-looking expression of affability. “Well, it will,” Elka said. Chloe was impressed with her ability to speak through gritted teeth. “If you have pretty hair, you’ll be able to turn the head of every boy in this camp!”
Chloe did not see how this was supposed to entice her. “I am not interested in finding a mate. And besides that, the males would not be able to see my hair anyway.” She thought for a moment, and then added, “unless x-ray vision is an ability your kind possesses?”
“Oh God no!” Elka said, a shudder running through her before she continued with, “if you would just take your helmet off-”
“No,” Chloe said in a tone that brooked no argument.
Elka tried anyway. “I’m only making a suggestion. You do have a pretty face under there, you know. It’s such a shame that nobody gets to see it.” She leaned over and lay a hand on Chloe’s shoulder. “All I am saying is that taking it off from time to time might be good for you.”
Chloe shrugged free of Elka’s touch, officially at her limit. “I believe that we are done here,” she said tersely. Best to end this interaction now before she lost her patience and caused an intergalactic incident. “I will accept the dry shampoo, but that is it.”
Elka let out a ‘but’ before cutting herself off. She then inhaled through her nose and exhaled through her mouth; a self-soothing ritual that Chloe had observed other humans engaging in. “Okay. That’s fine,” she said, fixing a bright smile onto Chloe. “You try that out, and then, when you see how good your hair looks, you’ll come back to me and see all of the other wonders Satinique has to offer you.”
“That is not a likely outcome,” Chloe said bluntly.
“Never say never!” Elka sang out (when had Chloe said that word?) as she began gathering the samples up.
Chloe helped, taking the items closest to her and placing all but the dry shampoo into the white tote bag they had been stored in. The word ‘Amway’ was emblazoned upon the bag in blue letters and underlined in in a curving red slash. “I have not seen that logo in any of the commerce centers my parental units frequent,” Chloe said when they were finished. “Are they exclusive to your settlement?”
Elka laughed as she slid the tote bag underneath her bunk. As usual, Chloe was surprised by the sheer number of emotional undertones that a human laugh could contain, especially since Chloe herself was not prone to laughter of any sort. In this case, Elka’s giggles held a note of smugness, as if she were privy to information that Chloe was not. “You won’t find any of these products in stores,” Elka said, rolling her eyes fondly at Chloe’s ignorance. “You can only get them through Amway Brand Ambassadors.” Her face lit up, and from the way her chest puffed up proudly Chloe assumed that was the position that Elka herself held. When she was questioned on it, however the Earthling was swift to deny it. “Oh no, not me!” she said, flapping her hand airily- a gesture Chloe recently figured out was supposed to convey nonchalance. “I’m too young. My mother is the Amway Ambassador- she’s a Silver Producer- and she said that I should share these samples with the girls here. And I really need to, because…” Elka trailed off, the ghost of something very sad creeping into her eyes. She blinked it away before Chloe could comment on it. “Because I think that these products are ah-may-zing and I want to help her in any way that I can!”
Chloe nodded, thinking the endeavor honorable, even if the Earthling’s methods could use some work. Loyalty to one’s parental units was a common theme amongst Earth families, and Chloe, who felt a considerable amount of affection for the couple who had functioned as her caretakers since the day she had arrived on this planet, theorized that it was one of the few commonalities their respective societies held. “I will use the dry shampoo in lieu of my usual hair care regime the next time I am required to bathe,” Chloe said, softening a little towards the strange, delusional female. “If it performs its function in a satisfactory manner, I will see about having my maternal unit contact your maternal unit, so that they may come to a commercial arrangement.”
“Wonderful!” Elka exclaimed, clapping her hands together. She grinned from ear to ear, eyes alight with joy and relief. “You’ve just made a very good decision right now!” she said, reaching forward to pat Chloe again. To her credit, she aborted the motion after Chloe inched away from her grasping hand. “Let me tell you, you’ve saved yourself from complete disaster!”
Chloe tilted her head to the side. “What do you mean?” she asked, wondering why this Earthling should care so much about the state of another being’s hair. “Have you had a vision of some misfortune falling upon me?”
Elka flushed pink. “Oh, it’s nothing you need to worry about now!” she said as she hopped to her feet. “Everything will be fine, now that you’ve got Satinique protecting you!”
“Hmm.” Chloe rose as well, thinking she had been too quick in judging this human as entirely self-serving and frivolous. “Would you care to elaborate on what it was you saw?”
Elka opened her mouth, but no sound came out. For the first time, she appeared hesitant to speak, torn between sharing her vision and keeping it a secret. She swayed from side to side, as though she were physically being pulled by the two choices. “I would tell you,” she said after a few seconds of internal back and forth, “but...I think that I hear James calling me!”
Chloe glanced out of the cabin’s open door and saw nobody within view. “I did not hear him,” she said, confused, “or any of our other peers, for that matter.”
Elka huffed. “I meant in my head,” she said, jabbing a finger at her cranium. “James and I have such a strong connection with each other that I can hear him crying out for me, even when he’s on the other side of camp!”
The claim seemed rather unbelievable. Chloe’s previous observations had led her to conclude that communication between Elka and her mate were very inconsistent. Why else would she have had so much trouble locating him earlier? Chloe wanted to bring the contradiction up but Elka was heading towards the door, waving her hand in the customary human farewell. “Don’t worry about it! Just use that shampoo and everything will be fine!” She reached the threshold, shouting out a quick ‘bye’ as she jumped down the steps and then out of Chloe’s visual field.
Chloe stood in the middle of the cabin, perfunctionally returning the wave. She let that hand fall to her side and regarded the other one, which held the dry shampoo. Mentally, she weighed the pros and cons of recruiting such a temperamental person to her crew- the potential use her powers brought could very well be outweighed by the potential problems a volatile personality like that could cause. The subject known as Elka Doom will require a more solid grounding in reality before I can take her to the stars.
A lot of liberty was taken with the Amway products mentioned in this chapter- they really are called 'Satinique' (lol at that bastardized French) and I do believe that some of them are based on real products I saw on the site. But some of them I just made up. If you're really that curious, go check out the website for yourself and be amazed. These products are so good that the company doesn't let anyone comment about how good they are!
Chloe tries the dry shampoo out and finds herself quite unsatisfied.
That Elka Doom had foreseen a disaster that only the special hair care products she had to offer could avert was not particularly distressing to Chloe. It was clear that her and Elka’s priorities were very different, and what Elka regarded as a life-destroying catastrophe could very well be only a minor inconvenience. As such, she was in no hurry to apply the dry shampoo to her person. She tucked the bottle in the suitcase pocket she kept the rest of her toiletries in and then left the cabin to resume the work she’d been engaged in previously. The unplanned interlude, begun after being hit by a messy projectile and extended by Elka’s visit, had put her behind schedule. Such things occurred in the course of research-her paternal unit would have shrugged and said ‘that’s life’- so she tried not to let it bother her as she worked on her map of the campground. If she was going to be based in this location for a month, knowledge of her surroundings and the resources available to her would be vital.
Circumstances very similar to the ones that had initially altered the structure of her day forced her to retreat back into the cabin again not three hours later. She had been in the large, multi-purpose building in the middle of the camp (known as the Main Lodge), conducting an analysis of the organic compound referred to as ‘mystery meat’ when she heard the wet plop of something hitting the back of her head. The impact was softer than the previous one had been, indicating that it had been thrown by a weaker arm, and the projectile itself was of a more solid composition, as it did not splatter on the surface of her helmet. Instead, it bounced off and dropped down to the floor with another squishy squelch.
Chloe had glanced behind her to discover a brown, greasy lump of flesh similar to the one on her tray. She looked back up and saw the two Earthling males that had assaulted her earlier sitting two tables up from hers. The smaller of the two was grinning from ear to large, protruding ear, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter and his eyes alight with a malicious glee. His tray was noticeably devoid of any meat products, and his right hand was shiny with what Chloe doubted was perspiration. The other one, who had an overall much more interesting appearance (the mass upon his head was almost the size of the other male on its own), had not shared in his compatriot’s mirth like he had during the first assault( which he himself had committed). His expression was strangely blank, his lips a flat line from which his jagged, yellow-green teeth jutted out. He had appeared unsure to her- unsure of how she would react to this second attack on her person, and unsure of what he himself should do next.
Chloe gave him her full attention, able to lock eyes with him from behind the safety of her helmet’s faceplate. Though it was evident that he was not the one who had thrown the mystery meat, she could tell that he was the dominant partner, and that his rodent-like companion was merely following his lead. She had fixed her features into the expression her maternal unit used on library patrons who did not put their books back in the correct places -narrowed eyes, downturned lips- and shook her head.
Red a shade darker than his snickering compatriot’s hair began spreading across his pale, blue-tinged skin. Chloe had turned her gaze away, more concerned with the state of her helmet than in the Earthling’s physical reactions to her censure. She picked up her napkin and dabbed it over the back of her head. The residue left an ugly yellow-brown stain that bleed through the thin layers of paper. Not quite as messy as the mud bomb that had hit her earlier, but unpleasant nonetheless. The stench of rendered fat began wafting into her nostrils, making her stomach twist uncomfortably. Best to clean it off, she had decided as she placed the napkin back on her tray and rose, before the smell elicits a more severe response. A burst of laughter from her assailant had rung out as she disposed of her tray, the high-pitched guffaws echoing throughout the entire room. She had paid it little mind, and was only vaguely aware of when the tone of the noise morphed from mocking to distressed by the time she exited the Main Lodge.
She arrived back at the cabin shortly thereafter. Luck was on her side once again, for she discovered the space empty. Cleaning the grease off of her helmet unfortunately necessitated removing it, and she always felt vulnerable whenever she was forced to interact with any of the Earthlings without her protective screen to act as a barrier between herself and the odd human need for facial engagement. She gathered her cleaning supplies (a rag and a spray bottle of cleaning solution she had commandeered from the janitor’s hut) from underneath her bunk and settled herself cross-legged upon the bed. A strange sense of having already been through this nibbled at her- the denizens of this planet, she recalled, referred to it as ‘deja vu.’ I half expect the pre-cognitive human to rush in here as she had the previous time I was in this position.
Thoughts of Elka Doom prompted Chloe to think of the product the girl had given her only hours before. Now would be the optimal time to test the dry shampoo out, Chloe reasoned, since I currently have the cabin to myself, and need to uncover my head anyway. She took the helmet off, lay it screen-side down so that the grease would not smear onto her blankets, and then hung upside-down off the side of her bunk. The bag she had put it in was just out of her physical reach, but with a bit of mental effort she was able to use her newly-acquired telekinetic abilities to drag the bag close enough for her fingers to grasp the strap. She slid the bag out and then pulled herself upright, proud of the improvement she had made in that skill. It will be the first thing I report to my parental units once I have established communications with them.
The first thing she did after taking the bottle out was review the directions printed on the side. They were simple, as Elka had told her, and Chloe’s attention drifted down to the list of ingredients. How odd, Chloe thought as she struggled to pronounce the words she read. Elka led me to believe that the formula of this product consisted of things found within the natural world. But these all sound like complex chemical compounds to me. Had she access to her home computer or the library that her maternal unit was employed at, she would have been able to research what those chemicals were and what they did. Resources at this camp were appallingly limited unfortunately; the lone computer available for the campers to use had a very spotty internet connection, and the selection of books not even filling up a single bookcase. There were whispers of a secret laboratory located somewhere within the vicinity of the Geodesic Psychoisolation Chamber, but those same whispers claimed that the laboratory belonged to Agent Nein. That particular camp counselor was, in her paternal unit’s words, ‘as shady looking as they come,’ an assessment Chloe concurred with. She had no intention of interacting with the stern-looking agent until she was certain that he was not a threat to her or her mission.
Chloe scratched her scalp as she wrestled with whether or not she should use the dry shampoo with the unfamiliar ingredients. After a solid minute of internal debate, she ultimately decided that the potential benefits outweighed the risks. Supposedly, this spray-on shampoo did not require her hair to be wet in order for it to work. Chloe did not find the human bathing ritual to be unpleasant- being submerged in warm water actually felt quite nice- and she certainly understood the importance of maintaining proper hygiene. It was, however, a time-consuming, inefficient practice that took her away from her work for at least half-an-hour, sometimes longer if she was in a particularly filthy state. Anything that could possibly cut-down on time spent attending to basic needs was at least worth a test-run in Chloe’s opinion. And if the product didn’t work? The restrooms weren’t far from here, and if the worst were to happen, she could just go wash the stuff out.
Her decision made, Chloe began spraying the dry shampoo all over her hair. The instructions had not told her how much she should apply, so she chose to start with a conservative amount, since she could always just use more if she had to. Or maybe not. The smell of the stuff- like rubbing alcohol with a hint of fruitiness- was making her nose wrinkle. When she put what felt like an adequate amount in, she massaged it into her roots, just as Elka and the instructions had told her to.
With that done, she set her hands on her lap and waited to see if there would be any noticeable effect within the first few seconds. All that happened at first was a slight hardening of her hair. Elka had not told her how long the dry shampoo would take to work, and the instructions on the bottle were equally uninformative on the matter. I will leave the product in for fifteen minutes, Chloe thought as she took up her helmet and rag. If nothing happens within that time-frame, I will wash the stuff out and consider the endeavor a failure.
For approximately three minutes, Chloe concentrated on ridding her helmet of grease and mystery meat residue. Just as she was drying it off and considering logging the incident in her daily report, she experienced a tingling sensation on the left side of her scalp, on the spot where she had first rubbed the dry shampoo in. Strange, Chloe thought, frowning as she reached for the bottle. Elka did not mention anything about this. There was nothing written about it on the bottle either. The only warnings Chloe saw pertained to persons who had either accidentally ingested the stuff, or had used the product near an open flame. Since Chloe had not done either of those things, she had to assume that the product was working as intended.
This is unacceptable, she thought as the tingling began to spread. The sensation, while not painful, was uncomfortable- it reminded her of when her foot would fall asleep after sitting in the same position for a prolonged period of time. I cannot be expected to endure this each time I have to clean my hair. She put her helmet back on and hopped off of her bunk, taking the bottle along with her. I will wash this off, and then go directly to Elka Doom to inform her of my dissatisfaction. She will not enjoy hearing it, but I must tell her the truth. If she doesn’t know that there is a problem, she will not be able to fix it.
The tingling intensified as she exited the cabin, to the point where she actually paused on the second step down, her annoyance turning into concern. Once, at a familial gathering, Chloe had sampled a confection called ‘Pop Rocks’. The crackle on her tongue was similar to the sensation she was currently experiencing on her scalp. This cannot be right, Chloe thought as she took her helmet off. How can something that feels so irritating be beneficial for any part of my body?
She reached up and rubbed the spot where the sensation bordered on pain. When she pulled her hand away, several strands, all tangled together, came away with it. Chloe swallowed as she stared down at the brittle clump, anxiety dropping in her stomach like a heavy weight. We are now upgraded to Threat Level Two, Chloe thought as she placed her helmet back on her head. Threat Level Two indicated danger to her physical status, and required that she seek out an adult who could provide her with medical attention. At home, those adults would have been her parental units or her instructors at school. Here, she was not so sure, for she had not yet gotten to know the staff.
A snort, then a snore, came out over the intercom, followed by a sleep muddled voice. “...I told ya, I’m gonna get the eggs,” it said before it was cut off. Chloe recognized the voice as belonging to the head counselor of this camp, a man who called himself Coach Oleander. Up until this point, Chloe had kept her interactions with this man to a minimum, and not just because he appeared more fond of yelling at children than teaching them. He boasted quite frequently of his association with the U.S. Military, and Chloe was very much aware of that particular institution’s policy towards extraterrestrials was one of hostility. Her dire situation, however, forced her to seek his aide, for he was the adult closest to her.
She darted over to the massive redwood the Coach’s treehouse was built on, racing up the ramp that led up to it as fast as her legs could carry her. In that time the sensation ignited into a burn that spread throughout her scalp with an alarming quickness. Tears were slipping down her face when she entered the room, beyond her control. When she came in the Coach was slumped over his desk with his back to her, snoring away beside the radio that, under better circumstances, Chloe would have liked to have tinkered with. “Coach Oleander!” she cried, a sharp note of distress heightening the pitch of her voice. “I require your immediate assistance!”
The Coach snapped awake at her call. He made a startled shout, then uttered a “what’s, huh?” as he frantically looked all about him, searching for the source of his abrupt wake-up call. The last direction he looked was behind him, whereupon he finally spotted Chloe’s small form standing not far from his seat. “Barge!” he barked, narrowing his eyes and clenching his fists. “What are you thinking, barging in her while I’m formulating my...lesson plan!”
“Apologies for the intrusion,” Chloe said, trying to speak with a calm, level tone. It was important that she be able to convey what she needed from him clearly, even though the searing fire on her head made her want to scream. “But I am in a state of physical distress and need medical attention.”
The Coach looked her up and down. “You look fine to me,” he said, showing little sympathy toward her plight.
“It is my scalp,” Chloe said, pointing at her head. “It is...ah-” She winced, bit back the cry that came to her lips, then continued. “I believe it is suffering severe inflammation following the use of a defective hair care product.”
“Inflammation?” The Coach said, tapping his chin as he rose from his seat, the wooden chair creaking with his movements. “And it’s on your noggin too?” he said as he ambled over to her.
Under her pain, Chloe felt a sliver of unease creep up her spine as the Coach approached her. “Affirmative.”
“Well, let’s see it then,” the Coach said as he loomed over her. “Can’t have you damaging your head,” he said as he touched two fingers to his head and reached his other arm out towards her. “Who knows what that could do to your brain.”
Chloe clapped her hands over her helmet just as it began to lift itself off of her head. She jumped back out, the action shaking his attempt to use telekinesis off. “No!” she yelped, a cold, instinctive fear cutting into the hot agony atop her skull. Although this man was supposedly someone she could turn to in a time of need, Chloe could not shake the innate distrust she had towards Coach Oleander. It may have had something to do with the line of gleaming medals pinned to his shirt.
The Coach frowned, visibly irritated. “What do you mean no?” he demanded through gritted teeth, “What, you think I can see through that headgear of yours?” He made another telekinetic pull at her helmet, which she resisted by pushing down on it with her hands. “Cadet, how in the Sam Hill am I supposed to help you if I can’t see what the problem is?” he yelled, grunting with effort. “Do I have to break this down for you Barney-style?”
Chloe had never heard that phrase before, but she could hazard a guess as to its meaning. “No, you don’t,” she sighed, knowing that she could not argue his point. “Just...allow me to take my helmet off myself, please?” The mere idea of removing a vital layer of protection in front of this Military Man made her mind scream in protest. Her burning scalp was much louder in telling her that desperate times called for desperate measures. My parental units have met this man, she told herself as she lifted the helmet up, and they saw no issue in leaving me in his care, even if Karen did say that he was too loud.
Several chunks of her hair caught on the helmet as it left her head, falling to the floor. Chloe watched as one slipped through a crack in the floorboards, careful to keep her gaze averted from the Coach’s. She did not want him to see the tears seeping out of her eyes or the mucous running from her nostrils. Fortunately for her, it seemed like he could assess her condition with her head bowed. He whistled long and low. ‘Yeesh. That egg looks fried.” Chloe did not know why he had compared her head to a food product, but she did agree that it felt ‘fried,’ as he put it. “What the heck did you do to yourself?”
Chloe dug the dry shampoo out of her pocket. “I made the terrible mistake of using that without doing the proper research,” she said as the Coach took the bottle from her. That was an error she would never make again-from now on, anything that went on her body would be thoroughly evaluated as a safety precaution.
The Coach squinted at the bottle with his good eye. “Is this that Amway crap?” he asked derisively. “I told Cadet Doom to stop handing that stuff out last year. That hair gel she gave me flattened out my mustache so badly that I had to use Agent Vodello’s hair curler to get it back up to snuff.”
“I am satisfied that we can agree that her products are poor in quality,” Chloe said, digging her nails into her palm as though one painful sensation could ease another (it could not). “But is there some way that you could help me? I am experiencing a lot of discomfort.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got you covered,” the Coach said, tossing the bottle away carelessly as he walked over to a cupboard in the corner of the room. “Some Aloe Vera ought to take care of that. Always works for me.” He extended his arm up into the air and pulled it back. The cabinet door swung open with the motion, its hinges squeaking obnoxiously. “Course, the stuff’s gonna ruin what’s left of your hair.”
“A sacrifice that I am willing to make,” Chloe said as she watched the Coach rummage through the shelves, hoping that he would locate the green gel soon. She noticed that he had to stand up on his tiptoes in order to look through the upper shelves. “I would like to thank you in advance for your assistance,” she said, anxious for her ordeal to end soon. It was his job to look after her, of course, but Chloe felt grateful nonetheless.
“Hm. Don’t mention it,” the Coach said gruffly as he shoved a box aside. “The health of your head is my number one concern.” He paused, his arm still stretched into the second highest shelf. Then he pulled it back, allowing it to fall to his side as he settled back onto his heels. “Hm…” The rumble came from low in his throat, less a contemplative utterance and more a deep growl. He turned to look at her over his shoulder, his glass eye regarding her with its blank, unblinking stare. “Seems like we’re all black on Aloe Vera.”
Chloe’s brows furrowed. “Black?” she asked, the word coming thickly out of her mouth. “I do not understand.”
“Means I’m out,” the Coach clarified, slamming the cabinet door shut with more force than necessary.
Chloe huffed in frustration, heavily dismayed. It was deeply upsetting to have had the hope of relief dashed away in this manner. “Are you certain that you are out?” she asked, trying to keep the tremble out of her voice.
“Positive,” the Coach answered as he walked back over to her, each thump of his boots on the wood ringing in her ears.
Chloe forced herself to look up at his face. The grin he was giving her, one that stretched his mouth from ear to ear and gnashed his teeth together, did not inspire much confidence. “I noticed that you did not search the top shelf,” she pointed out. She kept her gaze focused on his glass eye, for it was easier for her to maintain contact with a fake eye than a real one. “Is there a chance that the Aloe Vera might have been up there, and that you could not see it due to your stature?”
In an instant, the Coach’s mouth appeared to flip itself over, and what was once the facsimile of a friendly smile turned into a threatening baring of teeth. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he bellowed, his voice booming so loudly that Chloe dropped her helmet to clap her hands over her ears. “You calling me too short to keep track of my stuff?”
Chloe squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her hands harder over her ears. Never in her life had she been shouted at in such a manner, and she found it almost as distressing as the physical pain she sought to alleviate. “I did not mean that…”she began, tears falling down her face to join the fallen strands of her damaged hair on the floor. “I only meant-” a choked sob cut her off, escaping from Chloe’s throat without her permission. She sniffed wetly, her usual composure cracking from the unprecedented stress of the situation she found herself in. “I do not know...I am not able to think as logically as I usually would,” she whimpered, looking down at the floor. “Apologies…”
A gust of air burst from the Coach. “Uh, kid…” he said, his rage having blown out of him as suddenly as it swept in. “Knock off that crying, alright?” He relaxed his expression, his frown now pitying instead of angry. “Look, I can help you. I’ve got some Aloe Vera. It’s just…” He hesitated for a second. “It’s just not here.”
Chloe swallowed and gathered herself up as much as she could. “I see,” she said, wiping her tears away with the back of her arm (not the most hygenic thing to do but she had little other choice). “And you are willing to take me to it?”
“Yeah,” the Coach replied, his voice devoid of it’s usual boisterousness. “It’s not too far, kid, don’t worry. It’ll all be over soon.”
“What will be over soon?” asked a soft, feminine voice from the doorway. “Morceau, what’s going on?”
The Coach jumped, visibly startled, his good eye wide as though he’d been caught doing something he should not have. “Mi- er, Agent Vodello,” he sputtered, mouth working helplessly. “What, uh, brings you here?”
The newcomer was a tall, dark-haired woman in a vibrantly colored, swirl patterned dress. Chloe had seen her before, but only at a distance, her proximity often too close to the suspicious Agent Nein for Chloe to feel safe approaching. “I was just going to run to town for a bit,” she explained, holding up a set of keys with a light-reflecting pink sphere attached to them, “and I was going to ask if there was anything you needed.” The look she gave the Coach was heavy with disapproval. “I heard you yelling, Morceau. You know that I don’t like it when you do that to the children.”
The Coach shrank back in response to this, intimidated by Agent Vodello. Chloe guessed that it may have been due to the difference in height between them. “There’s nothing suspicious going on here,” he shouted quickly, pointing down at Chloe’s bright red scalp. “I was just trying to help out this cadet here! She got into some bad stuff and well, look at her! Hair’s half gone and her head’s as red as Chef Cruller’s hot-dogs!”
Agent Vodello switched her attention from the Coach to Chloe. She gasped, hand going over her mouth. “Oh, no!” she said as she knelt down to Chloe’s level. “What happened, darling?”
The calm concern in Agent Vodello’s voice made Chloe feel marginally safer- she could tell that Agent Vodello was worried about her, but she didn’t sound panicked by Chloe’s condition, and that alone made her seem better able to help her than the Coach. Chloe explained how she came to be in her current inflamed state, miraculously able to keep herself together while doing so. “I am really hoping that you can assist me, for my pain does not seem likely to abate on its own.”
“Of course, sweetie.” Agent Vodello moved as though to pat her on the head, but then thankfully thought better of it and pulled her arm back. She gave Chloe a reassuring smile instead. “I can take care of her from here, Morceau. You can go back to whatever it was you were doing.”
Chloe exhaled a breath she had not known she was holding. How lucky that she should encounter someone who seemed to really want to make her feel better! Her relief was so great that she offered a trembling smile back. “Thank you,” she whispered.
The Coach felt the need to protest this for some reason. “I had it under control, Vodello,” he grumbled as Milla rose. “She just needs some Aloe Vera-”
“Oh, Morry, she’s going to need more than that,” Milla replied before the Coach could finish. “At the very least, we are going to have to wash that stuff out of her hair.” The Coach said something under his breath in response to this, but stalked back over to his desk, shaking his head. “Now, sweetie,” Agent Vodello said, “We’re going to need to go to the boathouse. Do you think you can make it there on your own, or do you need me to carry you?”
That seemed excessive to Chloe, for there was nothing wrong with her legs. “Negative, Agent Vodello,” Chloe replied as she picked up her helmet and put it back on her head. “Merely lead the way. I shall do my best to follow.”
“Aw, sweetie, you’re being so brave,” Agent Vodello said as they started towards the exit. “But you can call me Milla, you know.”