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Thirty-One, Level 1

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1993

Natalie pulled on the gloves from the package. The fingers were too long and clung worse than plastic wrap. She laughed.

“What?” Sharon asked.

“The gloves in my lab meet surgical standards. I peel them off into the biohazard bin.” Natalie stepped out of her bathroom and wiggled her fingers at her cousin, who was reading a food magazine on Natalie’s bed. “These are sandwich baggies! When I’m done, how do I get rid of them without smearing dye everywhere?”

Sharon raised her eyebrows. Then she came into the bathroom, pulled the little can out from the cabinet under the sink, and set it beside the tub. “Ta-da!” She bowed to an imaginary ovation. “Thank you; thank you.”

“Certified to pronounce cause of death for the City of Toronto, underqualified to color my own hair.” Natalie sighed. Of course, until she had noticed that one especially eye-catching white strand during the Norma Dean case last winter, dye was just not something to which she had given any thought. How quickly that one strand had staffed up since!

“Hey, when you said you were actually taking the day off, I offered to treat you to a morning with my stylist and an afternoon at a spa. You’re the one who wanted to spend her thirty-first birthday in her own bathroom.”

“Not my whole birthday,” Natalie objected. She was looking forward to picking up Sharon’s husband and daughter — Natalie’s goddaughter — on the way to meeting her own niece and sister-in-law at the girls’ favorite pizza parlor. She intended to eat too much pepperoni and lose some arcade games, revisiting the happiest birthdays of her childhood — both hers and her bother Richie’s. “A family night, that’s what I want.”

“What the birthday girl wants, she shall have!” Sharon, a few inches the taller, hugged Natalie from behind and rested her head on her shoulder, meeting her eyes in the mirror. “Are you sure you want to color it, though? There’s no going back. Once you cross the line with those chemicals, no treatment can restore its natural state — oh, wait: growing it out is a way back, isn’t it? Eventually. Never mind!”

Natalie grinned at her cousin’s reflection. In Natalie’s view, the family features that they shared — round cheeks, huge eyes, slight nose — looked glamorous on Sharon, but stunted on herself. Maybe it was the hair. Sharon’s was sleek and blonde, like Richie’s and his daughter’s. Natalie’s frizzy curls had been blonde like theirs when she was little, but had darkened with puberty, and now, just when she had gotten used to brown, white was storming the beaches. She couldn’t keep up.

Nick’s body never changed on him, Natalie knew. It replaced damaged or lost cells, of course, but always with perfect proxies. Until they cured his vampirism, his hair color would not — could not — shift.

Natalie had almost told Nick about her planned birthday caper, but had held back at the last. She would have known how to reply to Schanke — she deserved to eat some crow over her boasted preference to “save the cash and grow old gracefully” — and his inevitable offer of Myra’s Skin Pretty expertise. But what could she say if Nick... envied her? Worse, what if this change in her pushed him to notice time passing, to see the day coming when department ribbing about his appetite would turn instead to his youth?

“Yes, I’m sure,” Natalie said at last. From now on, this would be her decision, not her genes’. “I’m highlighting to cover unwanted gray. Besides, this is a ‘level one’ solution — no ammonia, no peroxide; coats instead of penetrates — so it’ll wash off in six to twelve showers.” Put like that, the experiment sounded almost too safe for Natalie’s tastes; she rolled her eyes. “Besides, what salons are open on my schedule, anyway?”

“Yeah, yeah. Too complicated for me!” Sharon sank onto the toilet seat. “That’s why I have a standing appointment with a professional.”

Natalie shook the bottle. “First of all, you do more challenging chemistry than this at your bakery every day, and you know it. Second, your salon date is known as ‘daddy-daughter’ day around your house, so—” Natalie loosened the nozzle.

“Wait! I’m out of here, and these with me.” Sharon took the good towels and the bathmat to Natalie’s bed, leaving behind only the bleach-stained bathsheet that they had agreed was, like Natalie’s shabbiest t-shirt, destined for dye. “Fingers crossed!”

Natalie squeezed the runny emulsion into the hair around her face, learned to deal with drips, and worked through her roots, per the instructions. When the bottle was empty, her hair under the cap, and the gloves in the trash, she started her timer. “This will take practice.”

“Come on.” Sharon closed her magazine. “Let’s have that birthday snack while you wait.”

On Natalie’s little table, Sharon set out the gourmet cookies that she had made and brought; lacey doilies separated the plate from the sweets. Natalie shook her head and contributed paper towels and two cans of diet cola. Sydney meowed loudly at their feet.

“Not for kittens, Sydney.” Natalie knelt down and scratched behind his ears. “Privileges of humanity.”

Sharon took a chair, a cookie and a can. “So how does thirty-one feel?”

“Better than thirty,” Natalie said, joining her. When Sharon’s eyes widened, Natalie hastened to clarify, “Because of the round number. Not because of what happened last year!” The serial killer calling himself Roger Jamison had bumped into Natalie in a supermarket parking lot on her last birthday. Subsequent events... had nothing whatsoever to do with her birthday. On that, Natalie was determined. She nodded firmly and bit into her cookie; it was heavenly. “Round-numbered ages are pushy. They demand to know why you are where you are, and not somewhere better.”

Sharon eyed Natalie’s notorious vermilion wall. “Do you not like where you are?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah.” Sharon broke her cookie in half over her paper towel. “Nat, are you and Detective Knight still ‘just friends’?”

“Good friends, yes. And colleagues.” And doctor and patient, scientist and subject... “I don’t know why everyone has to say ‘just,’ like we’re falling short of some goal.”

“We want you to be happy.”

Natalie’s eyes narrowed. “Sharon, did you invite Nick to my birthday dinner?”

“Hey, if he just happens to take his meal break at Pizza Palace tonight—”

The timer dinged. Natalie popped the rest of her cookie into her mouth and squeezed Sharon’s shoulder on her way back to the bathroom to rinse the goop out of her hair. Adding Nick to her family party did not bother her, but explaining Nick to her family had grown more difficult. Richie had always accepted their friendship without inquiry or innuendo; now, though, Sharon and Sara both appeared determined to see... more than Natalie wanted to show. Too bad there was no dye for that.

Inspecting her towel-dried hair in the mirror, Natalie didn’t spot any dramatic difference — but neither did she spy any white hairs.

“Let me,” Sharon said, plugging in Natalie’s dryer and picking up Natalie’s extra-wide-toothed comb.

Insulated by the roar of the hairdryer, too loud for conversation, Natalie let herself relax into her cousin’s care. She didn’t remember anyone combing her hair for her outside a salon, but she supposed someone must have, when she was too little to do it herself. She remembered teaching Richie how to part his hair...

“There,” Sharon said, drawing Natalie’s attention back to the mirror. “What do you think?”

Natalie leaned forward. She scrutinized the new highlights winking across the old brown. “Subtle enough?”

“Lovely! I know you don’t think so, but you always are, Nat.” Sharon stepped back and crossed her arms. “They’ll spread, though, you know, the scattered white stands that you’ve turned blonde. Today’s elusive blend will be next year’s blatant stripe.”

“One year at a time is enough,” Natalie smiled. Who was to say what she could accomplish in a year? “My milestone, my choice.”

 

—  End  —