Tamia’s eyes were closed. The radio was on, and as always in her parent’s house, tuned to the public radio station. She sat on a bar stool in the kitchen wearing one of her father’s old shirts. Her hair was divided into sections, like a landscape of tiny farm plots, and her hairline and ears were slathered with Vaseline. The fragrant, slightly acidic smell of the relaxer always seemed to trigger a sense of relief in her, like she was finally dealing with a problem that needed to be resolved. This was far from the biggest problem on her plate, but she was grateful for small, attainable goals like this.
She heard the snap of latex gloves and felt her mother pull the clip out of the first section of hair. “I’m going to start in the middle, then go up front, then end at the base.”
“Okay,” said Tamia. Her mom did it like this every time, but it had become part of the ritual to say it. Ignoring the Economist on her lap, she kept her eyes closed and listened to pundits debating key congressional races while her mother smoothed relaxer onto section after section of her hair. She knew it didn’t make any sense, but somehow her head always felt lighter after getting her hair relaxed. She felt lighter, calmer, more in control of her hair and everything, which was just what she needed right now. She shouldn’t feel guilty for leaving Dr. Block. They had both agreed they needed a break from the relentless round of reporters and agencies. But what did it say about her that her idea of taking a break was running home for a beauty ritual, while Dr. Block’s version was teaming up with a molecular biologist to write a report?
“Tamia, baby, you’re going to set this when we’re done, aren’t you?”
“Eh, that takes too long. I’ll just blow it dry.”
“You know it would look better—”
“Nope, no curlers.” Her mom knew this already, but asking seemed to be part of the ritual too. Tamia hadn’t put a single curler in her head since the freshman year fire alarm prank that had sent everyone running outside at three o’clock in the morning. Of course, she’d been the only one in the dorm who used rollers. And since that night, never again.
“Put your head down,” her mother said.
Tamia tipped her head forward. She was always sleepy by this point in the process, another reason not to mess with curlers. Better to just blow it dry.
A news announcer’s voice derailed her drowsy train of thought. “A neighborhood in western Washington State was engulfed in flames after an incident with a tree removal company spiraled out of control.”
Tamia’s eyes popped open.
“Don’t move,” warned her mother.
“Sorry,” said Tamia. “But listen.”
“Three homes were damaged and one person killed when an attempt to remove a tree from a Puyallup resident’s property was thwarted by,” the announcer paused dramatically, “the tree itself. According to witnesses, the cottonwood fought back when the tree removal procedure began, killing the employee. Authorities believe that power lines damaged during the altercation ignited a fire on the roof of one of the houses, and the blaze quickly spread to neighboring houses in the windy conditions.”
Her mother stopped smoothing relaxer into her hair. “Oh my god, Tamia. You’re not going back out to that cabin.”
“Mama, we’re not chopping them down,” said Tamia. “They won’t hurt us.” But she wished she felt as sure as she sounded.
“How do you know?” asked her mother, taking up her hair again. “We don’t know anything about them.”
“Aside from the one fatality,” continued the announcer, “there were no additional injuries. Two of the three families have already moved back into their homes, and the third residence is undergoing repair for extensive damage to the roof. The tree in question remains in place as authorities determine how to remove it with no additional loss of life or property.”
“That’s it, you’re done,” said her mother.
“But Mama, this is exactly why Dr. Block and I—”
“I mean your hair. It’s done.” Her mother stripped off her gloves and handed her the bottle of neutralizing shampoo. “Go wash it out before it starts to burn.”
Tamia padded into the bathroom and stepped into the shower. She tipped her head back and rinsed the thick helmet of cream out of her hair before lathering up, then breathed in the pungent, slightly tangy smell of neutralizing shampoo hitting the remaining relaxer. How much time had she spent on this routine, on her hair, straightening, prodding and poking her way into someone else’s image of what she should look like? Only, by now she couldn’t exactly call it someone else’s image: she’d internalized it. Walking around with unrelaxed hair was like leaving the house without a bra. Sure, other folks did it all the time. But that was other folks, not her.
Whatever, she shouldn’t waste any more time obsessing about her hair when she had more important things to think about. One more person killed just now and another up in Olympic National Forest last week, plus those Weyerhaeuser loggers. Things were just going to get worse. Dr. Block was afraid people would start setting more fires, but Tamia hadn’t believed it until now. If people couldn’t cut the trees down, what would they try next?
She stepped out of the shower and wrapped herself up in one of her mother’s fluffy, luxurious towels. Enjoy this now, she told herself. You’re going back down to Dr. Block’s tomorrow.
Tamia got dressed and went into the kitchen to show off her new hair.
“You like it?” asked her mother.
“You’re my favorite stylist,” she replied, kissing her on the cheek.
Her mother smiled. “Your phone went off while you were in the shower.”
Tamia picked her phone up off the kitchen table and checked the number. Restricted. Could it be Charlie Meninick finally calling back? She dialed into voicemail and punched in her code.
“Tamia, this is Rima from Governor Palmer’s office. Please call me back…”
Tara Campbell is a Washington, DC-based writer of crossover sci-fi. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. Tara is the grateful recipient of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ (DCCAH) 2016 Larry Neal Writers’ Award in Adult Fiction, and the DCCAH 31st Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist. She’s an assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse, and her monthly column at the Washington Independent Review of Books, Text in the City, covers all things books and writing in the DC area.