novel excerpt:
Beauty Shop

by Kristina Marie Darling
forum: Beauty Shop
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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IV. Beauty Shop
an excerpt from the in-progress novel
The Great Destroyer


          Chelsea stepped out of the hospital’s revolving glass doors. They spun on in glittering circles after she pulled a wallet and a broken watch out of her duffel bag.

          “Stupid watch… Damn it, damn it, damn it…” Chelsea whispered as a thin old man in shirtsleeves and suspenders pushed past her. She rolled her eyes and kept walking. The streets were unusually dark for six at night, with small yellow streetlights held by skinny, grey arms. Three old women hobbled down the sidewalk, backpacks strapped to their hunched backs. Chelsea kept walking. With every step she took, she thought: There is another old person walking down the street with duffel bags and suitcases. It began to rain. Chelsea could feel her own bag become heavy with its own small tides, everything that survived confiscation at the hospital sloshing around the bottom. She began to run. Small rivers formed where the sidewalks had cracks, disappearing as Chelsea jumped over them. She knew that if the old people were going somewhere, it would be on the news. And if there was a radio somewhere in this city, and she would find it. Looking in each shop window on the street, Chelsea began to slow down. Her breath became heavy and dry. She opened her mouth and let the water dribble in. Looking up, the sign above her said: BEST BUY.

          After the automated doors shut behind her, a teenaged boy with zits and coke bottle glasses rushed over to Chelsea. “Hi you should try our new ipod charger because it really works if you buy one you get this free reward card that accumulates points and—” Chelsea rolled her eyes. She smiled her most winsome smile. “Hi. I want to buy a television.” She put her duffel bag down and walked over to a big screen. The remote sat unused on top of a DVD player. Chelsea grabbed it and switched the channel until she saw the evening news. Chelsea thought: I can spot those news anchors’ comb-over haircuts and second hand suits anywhere.

          She watched, enthralled, as the camera switched from the bald man in his cheap suit to a young blonde woman with long hair and a short, pastel pink skirt. She grinned her cap-toothed grin. “Just in from Miami, we have been informed of an outbreak of mutinies in nursing homes. Elderly ladies and gentlemen are climbing through windows, injuring staff, and going north for unknown reasons. More from gerontologist Kaye Flynn.” The blonde woman kept smiling. Chelsea thought: She’ll be grinning long after the cameras are done rolling.

          “Thanks, Lindsey,” the gerontologist said, grinning back at the blonde. “Medical professionals based at Harvard University have developed a new, highly controversial procedure that significantly reduces age related health problems.” The gerontologist continued, talking faster and faster into the KMBC microphone. “This new treatment, hailed as a miracle by patients, has the religious community in uproar because of its use of stem-cell related techniques in developing the procedure.” She clicked the television off. Each window, black with rain and dead leaves, seemed ready to burst. Chelsea thought: It really was the devil who’d been in her room that night she ran away, and he’d apparently gone to med school. Chelsea knew that the doctor had a pipe and peach-fuzz mustache without having to watch any more news-clips.

          She sat in one of the automated massage chairs near the television, her mouth drooping in disbelief. Her father had been right all along. The devil was here, taking in old people and doctors, probably performing plastic surgery on the side. Chelsea decided to call her parents. Maybe the two of them, worried that she might be injured in a nursing home mutiny, would come pick her up. She wondered, though, if it was really her parents' prayers that had turned her hair from blue to its mousy shade of brown that night in the hotel room. But homelessness in the middle of these strange migrations just wasn’t an option. She would call her parents, and whatever prayers they dished out, Chelsea could handle it. She thought, Hey, it’s worth a shot.

* * *

          “Hi, Dad? It’s me, Chelsea.” She breathed in a long, nervous breath of musty Florida air.

          “Chelsea?! Where have you been? Your mother and I’ve been looking everywhere for you. We were just short of calling in the S.W.A.T. team.” She could hear David Ambrose sniffle on the other end.

          Chelsea thought for a second. “Dad, I know I argued with you a lot about church stuff, but I just wanted to tell you that you were right all along. I’m in Florida. These old people are crazy. They’re leaving in droves to see that Harvard guy.”

          “What? You’re in Florida? How the fuck did you get to Florida?” David sounded more surprised than angry from the other end.

          She wasn’t sure how to explain it. “I met a guy and he bought me a plane ticket. We boarded the wrong plane. I was kind of in the hospital for awhile.” Chelsea rolled her eyes. Her change would run out before she could get through everything that had happened.

          “Where are you? Your mom and I are going to come pick you up.”

          Chelsea looked around. “I’m in Tampa. At the Best Buy on Beach Street. It’s closing, so I’ll just wait somewhere.”

          “We’re going to get on a plane right now, so just call my cell phone when you find somewhere safe to wait. Okay, Chelsea?” Her father sounded slightly sad.

          She said, “Okay, Dad,” and hung up the pay phone.

          Chelsea didn’t know where she could wait without being harassed by crotchety old men seeking a cure for their swollen joints and heartburn. Walking along Beach Street, she saw little old ladies who looked like librarians, with their glasses chains and button down sweaters. There were women who weren’t even very old, maybe forty or fifty, taking to the streets in a mad dash for wrinkle cream. Bald men and people with liver-spots dotted the streets for miles, lurching forward like a glacier.

          Ducking into a phone booth, Chelsea closed the door and breathed out a long, dehydrated sigh. She hoped they would find her before Florida became a trampled, footprint-ridden wasteland. The litter and bottle-caps from ladies in walkers already spotted the street like nervous stars. Even though Chelsea had admitted, outwardly and even to herself, that her father had been right, she still couldn’t fathom having made a single mistake. From the ladder outside of her bedroom to the botched plane-ride, she would have done it all the same way if it happened again in a week. When she noticed an ad for a credit card on the side of the booth, she smiled. Chelsea looked again at the street, cluttered and jammed with Buicks and Oldsmobile four-door sedans. She thought: I’m going to grow old naturally, blue-haired with purple eyeliner between my wrinkles.

* * *

          Five hours later, Chelsea had fallen asleep in the phone-booth after locking the door with her toothbrush and a rubber band. She jumped as one of the old men tapped his cane at the backside of the booth. When Chelsea turned around, she saw her dad, only bearded and with a large wooden cross necklace that was apparently new. His hair had grown shaggy.

          “Dad! How did you…” Chelsea’s mouth hung open, her eyes wide.

          “In case you were wondering, we got your hospital bills. Hop in the car, Chelsea.” When she looked up at his face, she was surprised by its complete lack of anything: anger, happiness, even movement of his mouth or a faint twitch of the brow.

          She opened the door of the rental car, a white Ford Aveo that looked like it was made entirely of painted plastic and shag carpeting. “How are we getting home?” Chelsea asked, her thin legs shaking and covered in gooseflesh. “These people are everywhere.”

          “We’re going to take this car back to Carbondale. The corporates won’t miss it with all this going on.” He turned his head back at Chelsea and asked, “You alright?”

          “I’m good. Thanks for asking. I thought I’d be stranded.” She tried to smile. “How are you and Mom?”

          He clicked his turn signal on and shifted lanes. “Your mother is good. Going to church every week, even stopped shopping. She hasn’t bought a single pair of shoes since you left.”

          Chelsea’s eyes widened. “Seriously? You guys must be loaded then, I mean without having to maintain that shoe collection. What about you, Dad?”

          David Ambrose sighed. “We’re living in the end, Chelsea. We’ve all made things right with God, even Lannagan. I’ll be expecting the same from you, you know.”

          “Dad, I’m sorry… About everything. You were right.” She had begun to look down and scrutinize the jagged ends of her mouse-brown hair.

          David twisted his neck and looked back at his daughter. “You should have just trusted me, Chelsea. It’s all written down. In the Good Book.”

          Her mouth gaped open. “Even the old guys?”

          “It’s in the Psalms. Biblical plagues are what they’re called.” He nodded his head as a hymn sounded on the radio.

          “Dad, I can’t just, like, convert, though. Even though you were right. I don’t feel anything when this stuff is on T.V., or the radio. Or even when I read it.”

          David Ambrose was quiet for a minute. He replied, “You just don’t understand it, honey. It’s not about feelings. It’s about the truth. You don’t feel anything about a math problem, but there’s only one answer.”

          Chelsea rolled her eyes. “Maybe there isn’t an answer. But you just need to believe something to keep going. I mean, everyone does. I believe in medicine, or at least I used to.” She breathed in and continued, “Curing people helps them, and doesn’t make them feel flames and pitchforks on the bottoms of their feet at night, Dad.”

          He stared straight forward and didn’t take his eyes off the road. Miles piled up behind them. Soon they were in Kentucky, the streets still lined with insecure housewives, over-aged playboys, and the truly old.

          The clock on the dashboard read: 11:12 p.m. David Ambrose turned off the radio, a loud yawn sounding from his now-visible throat.

          “We’re going to just park in this lot and keep going come morning. Okay, Chelsea?” He looked at her with the same blank face, its lines and crevices telling her nothing.

          “Sure, Dad.” Chelsea leaned back and rested her head on the duffel bag. After examining the roof of the Ford Aveo, Chelsea felt sleep dribble into her eyes. She swatted a bug from her arm as the car and her father became soundless and grey.

* * *

          Chelsea awoke to a preacher shouting: The devil is a gerontologist! The devil is a plastic surgeon! Aging Americans, beware… Stretching her arms, she closed her eyes and turned her back to her father and the radio. She knew that eventually the verses would leak into her ears and she would begin to listen, but this would not be the day. Chelsea thought: Five more minutes.

          “Honey, wake up. You should be listening to this,” David said as the preacher continued. He looked as though he’d been awake for some time, wearing a different t-shirt and his hair neatly parted down the side.

          “Uh… Okay,” Chelsea yawned. Sitting up straight, she stared straight forward, trying to give it a fair chance.

          The man on the radio shouted at the top of his lungs: These are the plagues foretold in the Bible! We are living in the end of life as we know! Satan will tempt you with a tummy-tuck, he will try to lure you with liposuction, but you will say no! You will say, “I have been born again into something eternal!” Chelsea rubbed her eyes. She yawned, thinking: It might be true, but not today. Not now. Harvard is just a school; it is not Hell. Gerontologists with peach-fuzz mustaches are merely nerdy doctors, not angels of darkness. When my time comes, I will grow old gracefully, end of story.

          David Ambrose leaned back in his chair, twisting his neck to get a good look at Chelsea. “What do you think, honey?”

          She smiled. “Umm…. He’s got a good preaching voice.”

          “No, I mean about what he’s saying.” Chelsea noticed that David was unusually patient with her remarks.

          “I can understand why people think that, but I’m not one of them.” She tried to look him in the eye, but didn’t.

          After that, Chelsea noticed that David Ambrose was extremely quiet. He leaned forward in the driver’s seat, hunched over the wheel, nodding his head to the radio. Feeling that she had failed him, Chelsea slouched against the car door, pretending to be asleep. For the two hours she faked a nap, she thought, over and over: The Harvard guy is just a doctor.

* * *

          “We’re here, Chelsea.” David Ambrose took the keys out of the ignition and opened the door. Rubbing her eyes after another feigned nap, she grabbed her duffel bag and walked to the front door. When Chelsea reached her hand out to ring the bell, her father pushed the door open himself and shouted, “AURELIE! LANNAGAN! GET DOWN HERE NOW!”

          Aurelie took her time walking from the kitchen to the living room, her stiletto heels making neat little clicks on the hardwood floor. Chelsea’s jaws dropped when her mother emerged slightly red-faced from the room where she’d been baking. She’d expected her mother to be eerily enthusiastic about cookies and dusting, but Chelsea hadn’t anticipated her mom’s rumpled appearance. Aurelia’s giant hair-bow was crooked, strands of her hair loose and fuzzy in her strange state. The apron she wore was blackened with roasts, barbeques, and casseroles, the blisters on her feet visible beneath the straps of her high-heels.

          “Mom! What happened?” Chelsea exclaimed, her duffel bag falling to the floor.

          Aurelie smiled. “What do you mean, Chelsea? I’ve just been cleaning the stove and I guess I got a bit of Lysol on my clothes.” She turned to walk back to the kitchen. The back of her dress was buttoned crooked.

          “Oh my gosh! Do you have Granny jeans now too?” Chelsea’s eyes widened, her hand covering her mouth in shock.

          “Granny Jeans? I’ve never heard of that brand name, Chelsea.” Aurelie looked puzzled. She pulled a small catalogue out of her apron pocket and began looking for Granny Jeans in the pants section.

          “They’re not a brand, Mom. It just means the ones with elastic waistbands and pleats in the back.” Chelsea couldn’t believe her mother didn’t know what Granny Jeans were. Aurelie had criticized Kegan’s mother for wearing them on Parent’s Weekend at the University of Chicago.

          “Of course I have pleated pants with elastic waistbands. I’d never get Lannagan to school on time if I had to squeeze into my Gucci pair.” Aurelie smiled her strange, robotic grin.

          Chelsea had become exasperated, her eyes narrowed into small slits across her face. “Mom, when did you ever care about getting Lannagan to school? He took the bus while you thumbed through the Macy’s book!” Not knowing how to convince her mother that she’d been a martini-loving spendthrift all her life, and that this overload of baked goods was just strange, Chelsea ran upstairs to her room.

          Opening the door to her room, she gasped. All of her medical books, lab supplies, and Betty Friedan books were gone. The first thing that Chelsea noticed in their place was a set of posters, each showing a man in a superhero cape and tights holding a Bible. The bottom of each poster read: It’s a bird… It’s a plane… It’s Bible Man! As she looked around, her feet and hands grew numb. Chelsea thought: Damn it, what did Dad do to my room?! Small Bible Man action figures lined her dresser. David had painted it a pristine white to cover up the pro-choice bumper stickers that she had stuck to the drawers. There were small, pale blue crosses everywhere. Chelsea knew it couldn’t be any worse, and decided to crawl into bed and hide. She pulled the covers back: Bible Man bedspreads.

          She jumped out of bed and suppressed a scream. Chelsea didn’t think when she’d been surrounded by droves of escaped nursing home residents that she’d regret calling home. Now she did regret it. Sinking into her new scripture-covered beanbag chair, Chelsea turned on her television. She was surprised that David hadn’t cut the cord until she noticed that it only picked up three stations. After flipping through the channels, Chelsea saw she could pick from C-SPAN, the five o’clock news, or the interior decorating station. She decided it would be the five o’clock news.

          A little blonde weather girl pointed to clouds. Chelsea sighed.

          “Thanks, Kaye,” an older, but still blonde news anchor said, looking straight into the camera. “I’m sure most of our viewers are aware of the rush to Boston for age-related health consultations. While it has been advised by the government to stay put, since there aren’t enough resources to sustain everyone seeking treatment at Harvard, people are still packing their belongings and going northeast,” she began, her oversized teeth glistening under the fluorescent light. “After the president declared this situation a ‘state of emergency,’ protests about the treatment have emerged from both conservatives and liberals alike and—”

          Chelsea flipped off the T.V. All that was left was the quiet, bleach-white space between her stud-ridden ears. It echoed with empty space.

* * *

          Chelsea sat down in her beanbag chair, wiggling her toes inside of her shoes. She thought: These sneakers must not be broken in yet. After pulling them off her feet without bothering to undo the laces, Chelsea yanked her socks off too. Something wasn’t right with her feet. After thinking for a second, she realized that she’d lost all seven of her toe-rings while she was in Florida. Her mouth formed a perfect, round “O” when she noticed that her feet had also been given a pedicure. Each toenail, bright pink and neatly clipped and filed, made Chelsea wonder if she’d passed out at a slumber party somewhere.

          “MOM! What did you do to my feet!” Chelsea screamed. She started opening drawers in her whitewashed dresser looking for nail polish remover.

          There wasn’t any in her room. She felt her hands grow as cold as a glass doorknob. Chelsea thought: It has to be the prayers.

          “Lannagan! LANNAGAN GET UP HERE NOW!” she screamed. After she grabbed the paper bag she’d left in the wastebasket, Chelsea began to hyperventilate.

          “What is it, Chelsea?” Aurelie smiled a toothy smile.

          “Yeah, Chelsea. You shouldn’t be screaming. It’s not ladylike.” Lannagan bent over to adjust her sweatpants – they were folded up at the bottom because they were too long.

          “It was you!” Chelsea exclaimed. “Lannagan, you little snit, you prayed for me to have pink toenails! And bad hair!” She wrapped her cold hands around his skinny neck for a second before Aurelie restrained her.

          “Chelsea, I just… I want a good sister. One that’s a role model. Why can’t you set a good example for me?” Lannagan stuck his lower lip out and made sad eyes.

          “I’m going to fucking kill you!” Chelsea whispered as she kicked his bare shins as hard as she could.

          Lannagan screamed. “Chelsea, I’m going to keep praying! You’re a punk!”

          Chelsea grinned her most wicked grin. “You haven’t seen punk yet, Lannagan.”

* * *

          Chelsea knew that even though she’d talked to her mother on the phone the day her hair dye washed out, that Lannagan was behind the prayers. She’d never even suspected him, the skinny, toothless, freckle-faced son of a Valium-popping housewife. After digging the keys to her Honda out of her purse, Chelsea ran downstairs, thinking: I am going to fight to stay punk. The car was where she left it: on the curb by her mother’s new peonies, the gas gauge on empty. She could have probably used her car more than she did, but there was never cigarette money to be spared for Phillips 66.

          Today there was, though – it was an emergency. She filled up her tank and drove to Walgreen’s. The automated doors swung open as Chelsea approached, an old man in suspenders grinning and shouting, “Welcome to Walgreen’s!”

          “Hi,” Chelsea said, “I want to buy hair dye. Purple, blue, and orange dye. Do you have that stuff?” She looked hopeful, her brown hair fuzzy with the coming rain.

          The old man grinned and pointed to a big, neon sign that read: HAIR PRODUCTS. Chelsea thanked him and ran to the second aisle, passing the pink and red dyes for the uglier shades.

          When she checked out, the petite blonde cashier asked, “Are you making Easter eggs?” Apparently she was dead serious.

          Chelsea replied, “No, I just need to touch up my hair. Where can I get a good spiked belt?”

          The cashier handed her the receipt, her eyebrows raised in horror.

          As the automatic doors squeaked open, Chelsea smiled. She loved to shock helpless blondes like that. Driving home, she thought: Anything Lannagan prays for, even if it’s pink shoelaces or no body jewelry, I can match it. She pulled into the driveway and took the key out of the ignition. When she walked in the front door, Chelsea saw a pastor on the big screen T.V. She’d always thought that guy had a good preaching voice – he reminded her of Barry White. David Ambrose turned around in his recliner.

          “Hey, Chelsea. What’s in the bag?” He looked suspicious with his wrinkled brow and both arms crossed over his chest.

          “Conditioner,” Chelsea said, trying hard to sound casual. She turned and ascended the stairs, looking at the pictures that hung neatly in a slanted row as she climbed higher. They depicted Genesis in five installments. There was a blank world at the beginning and a sparsely populated world at the end, the rifts in the clouds giving way to perfectly positioned rays of sunlight. Chelsea kept walking. When she reached the top, she darted into her room to grab a hairbrush and shampoo, then locked herself in the bathroom. Just to be sure, she jammed the knob with the chair David Ambrose used to stack Auto-Trader magazines on. She breathed out and closed her eyes. Soon her hair would be back to normal. Chelsea turned the tap on and read the directions to the hair dye, mixing it in the cup Aurelie kept by the sink to rinse toothpaste out of her mouth after brushing.

          When it was all neatly applied in chunks, rows and stripes to Chelsea’s sable head, she sat on the pink fuzzy toilet seat, trying not to let her head drip. She rinsed her head and toweled it dry. After she found the blow-dryer and turned it on, the buzzing droned out Lannagan’s screams when he saw the waist-length rainbow mass on top of Chelsea’s head.

          She shut the dryer off. Lannagan stood in front of her crying. Aurelie comforted him, her eyes glazed and empty. David Ambrose had his arms crossed and looked fierce, with his shaggy hair pushed back, his eyes skinny and bright.

          “I just… I… Dad, I…” Chelsea stuttered as they stared her down.

          “You, you, you. That’s all that comes out of your pinched little mouth, Chelsea,” Aurelie scolded, a blank smile still plastered on her face.

          Lannagan forced his lower lip out, tears sparkling on his popsicle-smudged face. “Chelsea, I don’t have anyone to look up to. Why can’t you be a good sister?” He pouted, standing pigeon toed before her.

          “Why do I have to look like a cheerleader to be role model? Can’t I do community service instead?” Chelsea asked, her hand on her hip. Her heart pounded with the injustice of her family’s lack of fashion sense.

          David looked Chelsea in the eye for a second before he said, “You have to do it all, Chelsea. Do it or we’ll make you.”

          “How? How are you going to make me?” Chelsea thought of the first time they caught her smoking and planned a family picnic. She nearly winced.

          “The Lord is on our side, Chelsea. You’ll see!” Lannagan shouted as he retreated to his room.

          Chelsea closed her door too. She noticed that her little brother had stolen some of her Bible Man memorabilia. It’s payback time, she thought, her pink toes curling as remembered Lannagan’s lisping pleas.





copyright 2006 Kristina Marie Darling.

Kristina Marie Darling is an English major at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006), House of Fame (Powerscore Press, forthcoming in August 2006), The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, forthcoming in August 2006), and House of Mirrors (March Street Press, forthcoming). Her poems and personal essays have appeared in several online and print journals, including Wicked Alice, Parting Gifts, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Subtle Tea, freefall, and The Other Voices International Project.