By Sarah Terez Rosenblum
“My hair’s in my eyes,” Agnes told her mom, just two weeks after a trim.
“Marcus grabbed it at recess,” she said a few days later, “I almost didn’t escape.”
“I can’t see the board,” she complained, fourteen days before her next haircut. “Maybe you should call Veronica.”
“If you can’t see the board, it’s your father’s fault. My eyesight is twenty-twenty.” Agnes’s mother flipped a page in one of her binders. “I’ll call the eye doctor tomorrow. They warned us your prescription could change fast.”
"Marcus blocked me with his big fat head, that’s why I couldn’t see.” Agnes pressed the bottom of one foot against the opposite thigh, because this was a lie. Marcus’s family had moved to New Jersey in March. Spreading her arms for balance, she stared at the calendar, high on the kitchen wall.
Two Mondays from today. If she said the words over and over, time would accelerate. How many repetitions would suffice? Twelve on one foot, twelve on the other, then eighty times before she fell asleep each night. Starting now.
“Two Mondays from today,” Agnes whispered teetering in front of the calendar. Of course tomorrow was Tuesday. If she said the words then, they wouldn’t be true. Not a problem. She’d pretend it was still this Monday every day until the fourteenth. Time might be a bully but she wasn’t as helpless as she looked.
Agnes began the fourteenth of February angry. She’d forgotten about the Valentine’s Day exchange.
“There’s twenty five, so you can give one to Mrs. Nelson.” Her mom held a shrink-wrapped pack of Disney princesses.
Sweaty in her purple winter coat, Agnes stared down at Belle’s vacant face.
“She looks pissy even when she’s smiling,” her mom said.
“These are for little kids. The girls in my class like Miley Cyrus.”
“Who?” Agnes’ mother glanced at the glove box where Agnes knew she kept her cigarettes.
“You called her a slut when we were watching TV.”
“Don’t say slut.” Her mother pressed the cards into Agnes’ hand.
“It can’t have been that bad.” Agnes’ mother opened the door to the Whitfield Plaza Mall.
“Marcus gave me a crumpled piece of brown construction paper. He licked it first.” A lie. Agnes paused to stand on one foot.
“Hurry up.” Her mother clapped her hand to her thigh as if calling a dog. “Tell Veronica to text me when she’s through.”
“They aren’t allowed to have their phones on the floor. Veronica said last time.”
“Well, you call me from their phone then.”
“You aren’t coming in?” Agnes stared straight ahead. If she shifted her eyes, she might accidentally change her mother’s mind.
The power of eyes can’t be denied, she thought, four times, as fast as she could. She hadn’t used that one in a while, but it always worked.
“The salon door is three feet away, what do you need me for?”
“I’ll get it to you tomorrow.” Inside the tiny shop, Veronica stood talking with the owner. Agnes loved entering a room to find someone’s back to her, particularly someone she thought interesting. The freedom to observe a person without considering her own expression felt luxurious.
“I shouldn’t have to ask you twice.” The owner, a slack-faced blond with a neck like a chicken’s folded her arms.
“Lot’s of my regulars are on vacation.” Veronica’s hair, a glossy mahogany several shades darker than Agnes’ lapped at her shoulder blades. Agnes ran tentative fingers through her own thick hair. Though the same style, it rarely did more than rest like road kill at her neck.
“For every day you’re late, you stay after close and sweep.” The woman’s neck shook when she talked. Agnes wondered how she kept her hands from it. If she had skin like that she’d touch it all the time.
“Can I help you?” The woman asked Agnes, though her expression said she’d rather not.
“Aggy,” Veronica did her buoyant pony-trot over to greet her. “Happy Valentine’s day. Have a seat in my chair, you know the one.”
Seated, Agnes sucked her lower lip, waiting for Veronica to offer her something to drink. She’d already decided on mint tea, more sophisticated than her usual lemonade.
“Let’s get you ready.” Veronica unfurled one of the black capes the salon used (Agnes’ mother called them garbage bags) and Agnes closed her eyes as Veronica leaned close to fasten it behind her neck. She’d been hanging out at Walgreens sniffing perfume for months now, and she was almost positive Veronica wore Love Spell. Only ten more dollars, and Agnes would have enough for a bottle of her own.
“What are we doing today?” Veronica asked.
“Just a trim.”
“Sure you don’t want something more fun?” Veronica ran fingers through Agnes’ hair.
“My mom wouldn’t like it.”
“Parents, right?” Veronica led Agnes several feet to the shampoo station. “My mom wants me to be a doctor.”
“You gonna?” Agnes tensed as her neck touched the sink’s icy rim.
“She thinks so.”
“I don’t do confrontation. Daisy will be right over to shampoo you.”
“Prices went up.” Agnes’ mom unlocked the car. Next time we’ll go somewhere cheaper.”
“Mom, no. The kids will make fun of me.”
“At least make it worth the money. Have that girl do something different next time. A bob maybe.” Agnes’ mom’s hands on the steering wheel were small and chapped. Not like Veronica’s, silky and pink-tipped.
“I like my hair how it is.”
Veronica had forgotten to offer Agnes lemonade, but she’d bent close to whisper “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“Mom.” After dinner, Agnes focused on keeping the first two toes on both feet crossed, and every finger too. Her mother turned a page in one of her textbooks. As an afterthought, Agnes linked her thumbs, hiding her jumbled hands in her lap.
“Jesus, what?” Her mother sat back, reading glasses askew on her nose. One of the earpieces had broken weeks earlier and waited in the junk drawer for repair.
“Are you going to Sherry’s party?”
“How do you know about that?”
“The invitation is on the table in the hall.” Agnes’ toes began to cramp.
“I’ve got my finals.”
“But Sherry’s your best friend.”
“Hardly.” Standing, her mother walked to the kitchen. Agnes listened as she uncorked another bottle of wine. Probably she should have waited till morning to broach the subject, but the expanse between now and Veronica compelled action.
“I’m just trying to help you.”
“Since when have you given a shit about me?” Her mother leaned in the doorway, a graceful, almost come hither pose. Wine glass in one hand, hair lit from behind, she could have been Natalie Wood in Gypsy, someone overlooked but promising. Except no matter how pert her features or slim her thighs, her mother never looked beautiful. Once Agnes watched from her mother’s closet as she applied makeup. Without liner her eyes seemed vague, but once delineated, there was something sharp and bird-like about them. Her skin, though smooth, remained dull no matter how much blush she applied. In the mirror, her mother’s face had looked grim.
“A day,” her mother had whispered. “Anyone could get through a day.”
“Since always.” Agnes had a feeling like maybe she should stand near the bathroom or the stairs, but she’d have to uncross her toes to walk.
“That’s funny, Agnes. You’re funny. She’s funny.” Her mother gestured toward an imaginary audience, a quirk Agnes dreaded. She hated feeling watched.
Upstairs in her room, Agnes realized her mistake. Of course she should have stayed quiet, but the real problem? When she stood, she’d uncrossed her toes. It wasn’t that big a deal, really. Agnes’ arm wasn’t bleeding anymore, but her mother would still be upset about the vase tomorrow. Downstairs, Agnes could hear her sniffling and the tinkle of glass against the dustpan.
If it were me, Agnes thought, I’d have thrown a cheaper vase.
Agnes finished tapping the base of her lamp--five extra taps on nights her mom got mad--and clicked it off. Tonight she'd also need to count her stuffed animals, lined on the shelf. In the glow from her tiger nightlight, she took her time. Task accomplished, she set her glasses on the nightstand, letting the room blur in the usual comforting way.
Her mother rarely used her hands to hurt Agnes, but when she did Agnes didn’t mind. She wished her mother hadn’t said what she had about Agnes’s father, though. Not because the words hurt, but because Agnes knew they were true.
“Blueberry.” Agnes’ mother handed her a white bakery bag. Agnes uncurled the top and pressed her face as far inside the bag as it fit.
“Thanks.” She said, when she figured she’d absorbed every scent molecule.
“So, I‘m going to Sherry’s party, Saturday.” Her mother barely flicked her turn signal before pulling the car into traffic. “Aren’t you going to eat it?”
“I don’t want to get crumbs.” Agnes nestled the bag inside her purple backpack. In the rearview mirror, her school looked like it was the thing zooming away.
“Give it back then.”
“I’ll have it when I get home.” Agnes wrapped her arms around her backpack. It smelled like old tuna and pencil lead.
“Which friend’s house do you want to sleep at?”
“Can’t I get a babysitter?” Agnes watched her mother’s face. Calculating expenses, likely.
“Maybe you’re old enough to stay alone.”
“No.” Agnes thought about the imaginary audience and the skin on the back of her neck prickled.
“You’re big. ” Her mom swooped the car left onto their street.
“School says we can’t stay alone till we’re eleven.” Agnes crossed her fingers.
“I could call Tina.”
“She’s at college.”
“You’re the one concerned about my social life. What do you suggest?”
“What about Veronica?”
“Hair cutting Veronica?” Her mother plucked the keys from the ignition.
“At my last appointment she said she was low on clients.”
“She’s a little old.”
“She’s paying for her own school, just like you.”
On Saturday, Agnes couldn’t decide between her purple sweater and her green tank top. She didn’t much like the green, but she’d worn it to her first haircut with Veronica.
“It’s fifty degrees in the house,” her mother said when Agnes leaned in her bedroom door to monitor her progress. Agnes’ mother had a way of getting more than halfway through something like making pancakes or changing clothes, then suddenly stalling out. “You’re going to freeze in that skimpy thing.”
“I’ll change.” In her room, Agnes tossed the tank top in her hamper and slid the purple sweater over her head. Back at her mother’s door, Agnes studied her outfit, a rose beige blouse and skirt.
“You look nice.” Agnes stood on one foot. The outfit further yellowed her mother’s already sallow complexion.
“You think I don’t know when you’re lying?” Her mother stepped into a pair of black flats and clicked off the overhead light in her bedroom.
When the doorbell rang, Agnes’ palms turned marshy. She wiped them on her jeans.
“Thanks for doing this,” she heard her mother say.
“It’s no problem.”
Agnes had been half afraid it would somehow be Tina, but Veronica’s voice was unmistakable. She peered over the banister, afraid to descend.
“Your hair is incredible. What a change.” Agnes’ mother’s shoes tapped down the hall to the closet and Agnes heard her rummaging, probably for a purse.
“I was bored.” Veronica giggled. “I thought, if not now, when?”
“You should talk Agnes into a change. Same hair since you started cutting it.”
Agnes licked her lips, waiting for Veronica to react.
“You don’t think it’s too much?”
Agnes imagined Veronica poised by the hall mirror, riffling a hand through her hair. Was she covering for Agnes’ lie?
“Speaking of…” Agnes mother clicked to the base of the stairs. “Agnes? Get down here and be a good host.”
“I’m here.” Agnes did her lucky walk, placing both feet on each stair. By the time she made it into the foyer, Veronica stood behind Agnes’ mother. She looked smaller outside of the salon, worse; she’d chopped her hair short and dyed it platinum blonde.
“Hey, Aggy.” Veronica smiled.
“Hi.” Agnes widened her eyes, a technique she used for quick memorization. Black leggings, thin grey shirt, filmy red scarf, black beaded earrings. She thought she might hate Veronica’s new hair.
“I’ll be back by twelve-thirty.” Agnes’ mother buttoned the wool coat that always smelled like rain.
“Bye!” Veronica waved till the car turned right onto Alpine, though Agnes’ mother never waved back.
“Wanna see my room?” Agnes let Veronica climb the stairs first. She wanted to make sure she saw Veronica’s reaction. A person’s room was private and important. Probably Veronica would pause in the doorway, maybe even touch a hand to her cheek.
“You’re freakishly neat,” Veronica said, plopping on Agnes’ bed.
“I don’t mean to be.” Her second lie of the day. Two might mean extra counting before bed.
“When I was your age I couldn’t find my floor!” Veronica eyed the long wooden shelf across from Agnes’ bed. “Why do you have so many stuffed animals?”
“I just do.” Agnes leaned against her desk hoping she looked like a model. “Do you like jewelry?”
“Here.” In the back of Agnes’ desk drawer behind her pencil case and sharpener, she found the Altoid tin. Opening it, Agnes unfolded a square of aluminum foil to reveal the necklace.
“It was my grandmother’s.” She dangled the supple chain from her fingers, letting the solitary pearl glisten in the last rays of sun.
“Cute.” Veronica rolled onto her stomach, propping her chin in her palm.
“It’s like Grace Kelly, right?” Agnes held the necklace closer to Veronica. Maybe she hadn’t gotten a clear look.
“She’s in old movies.” Agnes crumpled the necklace in her hand.
“I hate black and white. I always want to take a paintbrush and just color it in.” Veronica trailed one hand over the surface of Agnes’ pillowcase, the perfectly soft one she’d had since she was five. “I shared a room with my little brother. You’re lucky.”
“I don’t feel lucky.” Agnes imagined a younger brother. Maybe he’d trade Pokemon cards like the little kids on the playground and throw a tantrum when her mom served broccoli. Not too interesting, she decided.
“Your parents are divorced?” Veronica asked.
“For a year.” Agnes glanced toward the doorway.
“Your mom doesn’t want you to talk about him?” Veronica flipped onto her back, folding her arms beneath her head.
“What?” Agnes thought Veronica’s arms looked like a flesh-bow on a present. Or maybe giant ears.
“You act like she’s going to overhear.”
Agnes rolled the necklace between her hands like dough.
“Mine are, divorced. Since I was two. You ready for dinner?”
“We eat at six.” Agnes folded the necklace back into its foil.
“Are you hungry?”
“I guess, but it’s only five fifteen.”
“I’m going to check the fridge.” Veronica swung her legs over the side of Agnes’ bed. “Race you?”
Agnes shook her head.
“You’re like a short grown-up or something,” Veronica stood. “You sure you’re really ten?”
Tucking the Altoid tin behind her pencil case, Agnes worried for a minute that Veronica might come back and take the necklace. She’d never shown anyone its hiding place. But Veronica didn’t even seem to like the necklace. Agnes licked her lips. She’d been certain Veronica would love it like she did.
“I’m ordering a pizza.” Veronica yelled from downstairs.
Agnes found her in the kitchen rifling through the junk drawer.
“Where do you guys keep your menus?”
“We don’t order out much.”
“That’s all my mom and I did when I was a kid!” Veronica pulled her phone from her purse. “I think there’s an Eduardo’s over on Main.”
“Mom wanted me to finish the casserole.”
“About that. Why is it green?”
“From the beans I guess?”
“I’m paying. Pick your toppings.”
“What time did I call?” Veronica slid her feet from her shoes and propped them on the coffee table.
“Purple’s your favorite color, right?” Agnes pointed at Veronica’s toenail polish.
“How’d you know?” Veronica pressed a foot into Agnes’ hip. Without thinking, Agnes grabbed for it.
“I’m ticklish!” Veronica twisted away, laughing.
Face hot, Agnes jumped when the doorbell rang.
“I got it.” Veronica grabbed her cash from the table.
Agnes counted to thirty. If she finished before Veronica returned, she’d try to touch her again.
“So what boys do you like?” Veronica chewed with her mouth open, but Agnes forced herself not to look away.
“There was one, but he moved.” She took a bite of pizza and counted.
“Sad.” Veronica reached for the remote. “How does this thing work?”
“It’s the other one.” Agnes picked the remote from the basket next to the couch. “Want to see my favorite show?”
Agnes navigated the list of saved shows until she found the one she wanted.
“It’s about tigers.”
Agnes set her pizza down on a napkin and folded her hands in her lap. After the familiar National Geographic logo faded, she darted a look at Veronica. Reaching for another slice of pizza, she hardly seemed riveted, but Agnes knew she’d like the part coming up.
“I can’t watch this.” Veronica shook her head. “At least not while I’m eating.”
“Aggy, it’s horrible!”
Agnes felt her cheeks heat again. She folded her arms across her chest.
“Turn it off.”
She shook her head.
“Then I will.” Veronica reached for the remote. “Which one is the power button?”
Agnes licked her lips. They were starting to feel really chapped. Veronica fumbled with the remote until the screen darkened.
“That was screwed up.” Veronica looked at Agnes. “How can you stand watching them do that?”
“Burn the pelts?”
“They had to or else the poachers would be able to sell them.”
“But they still had faces and then the fire just ate them up.” Veronica fiddled with the remote and brought up the main screen again.
“It’s just how it is.” Agnes shrugged. She’d never wondered why she loved watching the dead tigers burn.
“The Real Housewives.” Veronica slid from the couch to the carpet, cuddling her knees to her chest. She clicked the icon. “I love this show.”
Within seconds she seemed absorbed. Agnes thought Veronica probably fell asleep fast too. Herself the last person awake at sleepovers, Agnes knew the type. Inching over on the couch, Agnes widened her eyes to memorize the scene. Veronica barefoot and casual, pizza crusts piled on her plate. Agnes continued to wriggle right until she was directly behind Veronica, a perfect spot to observe without being seen.
The back of Veronica’s hair was slightly mussed, her skin tinged blue by the TV’s glow. The tag on her shirt poked up at a right angle and Agnes reached to tuck it under, then paused, her hand at the base of Veronica’s neck. Strangely insubstantial beneath the thin fabric, it reminded Agnes of a dandelion stem.
On TV, one of the housewives yelled into her cell phone. She lay face down on a massage table, so she had to jut her chin, the angle contorting her features like the Picasso picture Agnes’ art teacher hung over her desk. Above her, the masseuse sighed and cracked his knuckles. When the housewife hung up, he went back to kneading. Agnes mimicked his movements, working her fingers into Veronica’s back.
“Crap, that feels good.” Veronica said. “Can you do my low back?”
“It’ll be easier if you take your shirt off.”
“Okay.” Like a girl in a movie, Veronica lifted her shirt over her head exposing a short, filmy camisole.
Veronica obeyed and Agnes trailed her fingers down her spine, pressing where Veronica’s back disappeared beneath her waistband.
“I’ll get your neck,” Agnes said when she’d lost interest in Veronica’s back.
Veronica sat up, stretching a bit from side to side. Agnes squeezed the base of her neck with one hand.
“I’m not here to make friends,” one orange housewife said to someone, maybe the gardener.
Without stopping to think, Agnes slipped her free hand down the front of Veronica’s undershirt, taking Veronica’s nipple between her fingers.
“Whoa!” Veronica jerked left, craning to see Agnes’ face. “What the hell?”
“That was totally inappropriate.” Veronica hauled herself onto the couch next to Agnes, folding her arms. “Apologize.”
Agnes thought how Veronica barely glanced at her grandmother’s necklace. How she’d never heard of Grace Kelly and thought Agnes’ room was too neat.
Agnes shook her head. “I can if I want.”
“Take your shirt off.” Agnes reached for one of Veronica’s straps.
“Hey!” Veronica slapped her hands over Agnes,’ but Agnes tightened her grip. “Let go!”
“If you don’t let me, I’ll tell.”
Veronica’s strap though fragile, cut into Agnes’ palm.
“Tell what?” Veronica braced one foot against Agnes’ stomach, trying to twist loose.
“That you touched me.” Agnes let go then and Veronica fell back against the couch’s arm.
“I didn’t touch you.” Veronica’s strap slipped from her shoulder, the front of her camisole drooping low.
“I’ll tell and she’ll believe me.”
“You’re crazy.” Veronica swallowed, looking around the room for help, as if someone from the imaginary audience might lend a hand.
“You wouldn’t have taken your shirt off if you didn’t want me to.”
“She’ll believe me,” Agnes repeated. “She doesn’t even like you, but she loved my dad.”
“Aggy, maybe you need some help.” Veronica looked uncertain.
“With what?” Agnes tilted her head.
“With…” Veronica stopped.
Slowly, Agnes reached for Veronica’s top, easing it down to expose her chest. Veronica’s teeth pressed into her lower lip. Watching her face, Agnes cupped a breast in each hand.
“Easy,” she said, because that’s what you said to someone who didn’t want you to touch them.
A single tear slipped down Veronica’s cheek.
“Be a good girl and sit still,” Agnes said.
At bedtime, Agnes rubbed her cheek against her pillowcase. Veronica hadn't said goodbye when she left. She'd simply tucked the cash in her coat pocket and assured Agnes' mother they'd had a great time.
Agnes tapped the base of her lamp. Just twenty tonight, and no need to count her stuffed animals. Not since before Marcus moved to New Jersey had her breath come so easy. She'd missed feeling important like that, angry and in control. Agnes set her glasses on the nightstand and the room blurred in the usual comforting way.
Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s debut novel, Herself When She's Missing, was called “poetic and heartrending" by Booklist in 2012. She writes for publications and sites including Salon, The Chicago Sun Times, XOJane, afterellen.com, Curve Magazine and Pop Matters. Her fiction has appeared in literary magazines such as “kill author and “Underground Voices,” and she was a 2011 recipient of Carve Magazine's Esoteric Fiction Award. She teaches Creative Writing at The University of Chicago Graham school and runs the Truth or Lie Live Lit Series.