The day after your mother is taken away, when you are thirteen and peeling layers of July heat from your shoulders and elbows and knees and thighs, when your hair is a dirty chlorine green from swim team lessons and cropped like a page boy’s, just like the ones in your picture books with the sweet severity of a bob against the round globe of a child’s face waiting and watching their (his? her?) master (Merlin, reedy with wizardry, tall but stooped, a tenuous pile of ramshackle bones wrapped up in velvets the color of a deep jewel, and his hat! crooked (like they always are, it seems, regardless of wizard or witch or even intruding Mickey Mouse, poised against the great 1941 Fantasia cliff, clumsy with his stolen magic and starlight), when you’re outside in your grandparents’ buzzy-hot carport waiting for your father to say goodbye to his frail mother and come outside and click his car keys so the car will light up and let you in, your aunt says something to you. She has come outside and there is something uneasy in her face. She is blonde and middle-aged and wears lots of animal print blouses and chunky chain jewelry so she’s chic in that specific sort of way southern ladies of a certain age are, and you ready yourself for an embrace because your mother is gone and no one’s said much about it. But she does not do this.
The day after your mother leaves, you decide to dye your hair. You found a box of it earlier, stuffed down into one of the bottom drawers of your parents’ bathroom—on your mother’s side, of course—the one with the mess: the upside-down toothbrush, the two small tubes of mascara flung out on the counter like sets of dice, the burgundy lipstick blot on the rough twist of her hand towel.
Your mother: always leaving behind little crumbs of herself.
Your mother: absolutely everywhere.
It feels like a chemical reaction to her absence, these memories, these incessant reminders that she existed, by way of lipsticked evidence. All these small physical things. Your mother, spread all over the countertops like a bruise. And your father’s side is so tidy that he’s hard to imagine there at all.
Your father, always playing specter to your mother’s spectacle.
The box promises blonde highlights and the chart on the side shows three final color potentials, which you appreciate a great deal: the order and the method of the results given to you beforehand with upbeat promises of “simple” (Quick processing time of only thirty minutes!) and “worry-free” (Rich, no-drip creme makes it easy for control of creative techniques!). You actually feel cheerful with all this knowing because Summer has reinforced just how little you do know about lots of things. But here, at last, is something you do know, which is that the middle color swatch looks a lot like your own shade of brown. A brown so ash it’s gray.
You’re the type of girl with the type of hair that belongs on the sides of hair dye boxes, and there’s an inclusivity in this realization that feels like a ghost’s friendly hug. It makes the prospect of starting eighth grade in two weeks, the fact that your uniform hasn’t been ordered because your parents have bigger things to worry over, far more bearable.
You belong to something now.
You turn over the box in your hands, admiring its $9.95 glossy laminate shine. You’re relieved to even be included.
As you stand there holding this ammonia-oxide remnant of your mother and her memory—already 24 hours stale—she’s reduced to an accessory, one you can wear in your hair. And when you look up and into the mirror and meet your own eyes, the girl who looks back is calm, pale, impossibly older than you, yourself. This is when you first learn to derive pleasure from composure. Acting okay is almost like being okay. Soon enough you’ll grow addicted, as well as very very good at this kind of compartmentalizing. It’ll take a little over a decade until you recognize this for what it really was: a thirteen-year-old’s attempt at mothering herself and resulting bad brassy dye job.
Mary B. Sellers is a mermaid who likes glitter. Originally from Jackson, MS, Sellers is a recent graduate of Louisiana State University's Creative Writing MFA Program. While there, she worked on her Frankenstein of a thesis, a hybrid novel, RAPUNZEL HAS INSOMNIA, which is part story collection, part fairy tale vignette, and part personal memoir, dealing with themes of mental illness and inheritance, the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, and childhood trauma. In her downtime, she likes drinking wine and eating tacos.
Her stories and essays have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as: Third Point Press, Sidereal Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, Literary Orphans, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Mauldin House, Moon Sick Magazine, and others.