Updated: Jul 19, 2020
Jennifer stared angrily at the reflection in the mirror, at the crude dark stain that interrupted the smooth honey blonde of her cascading hair. Skank roots, is what she and her sister called them, something she had never let occur in the twenty-some odd years that she had been bleaching her hair the perfect shade of blonde. This was getting ridiculous - she actually had skank roots.
Of course when news broke about the mysterious new virus spreading its way across the world, she’d taken it seriously. Who hadn’t? She made sure to stock up on extra canned veggies and toilet paper, just like everyone else, content to hang out at home, catch up on the laundry, paint her room a new color. She’d adjusted, donning one of her cute baseball caps when her boyfriend called to FaceTime, a skully when her other boyfriend called. But somewhere around the third or fourth week, when the ugly brown roots began to expand way beyond the acceptable limits, she’d hit her breaking point. This quarantine was bullshit.
“You really should stay inside,” her boyfriend told her in his airy condescending tone. He no longer worked in a hospital, he just owned them, and spent most of his days golfing and drinking Bud Light. “I hear they are really taking a hit with the amount of new cases. You don’t want to catch this thing. I’ll see you when they let us fly back from Jamaica.”
“It’s all bullshit, man,” her other boyfriend told her, scowling under his fringe of multi-colored hair. “We can’t let the government control us. We’re all going to turn into a bunch of commies.”
Regardless of opinions, enough was enough. She needed out of this house and she was getting her damn hair done. She had a right to leave, she was an American. Who was to say when she could or couldn’t get her hair done?
She logged onto her computer, searching to see who was taking house appointments. She shuddered to think what kind of process they used, but it was better than trying to put some store bought junk on her precious locks. Finally, she found a lady, not far from where she lived who was taking appointments in her basement. She sounded normal enough when she called, and within ten minutes she was dressed, baseball cap on, and out the door.
The world was quiet, for the weather was a bit too chilly for people to be outside, though she noticed a few brave souls walking down the street wearing masks. The city looked like a ghost town, stores closed and boarded up to prevent theft, gas stations only opened at their windows, the fast food drive-thrus packed. She couldn’t believe that only a month ago, everything had been fine; it was warm enough that she could drive with the top down on the convertible Boyfriend #1 lent her while he was out of town (again), the radio up loud, and the wind whipping through her perfect hair.
She pulled into the driveway, a nondescript bungalow with shutters that needed replacing. A wave of nervousness hit her, but she thought about Boyfriend #1 discovering her skank roots and she threw open the door, double checking to make sure she’d locked the door behind her. She walked down the driveway, following the directions the woman had given her on the phone, to the garage door. She took a deep breath and gave it a knock.
The woman who greeted her was wearing an apron, her gloved hands covered in dye. “Oh, hey, sugar, it’s going to be a minute, do you mind waiting on the porch?”
Jennifer was so relieved to see she was a normal person, that she didn’t complain about having to wait outside. She hadn’t eaten a carb in five years, it didn’t take much to make her shiver. “Sure thing,” she replied, heading back to the porch.
She took a seat, grateful the sun peeked out from the clouds. She closed her eyes, pretending she was somewhere other than trying to get her roots done at some stranger’s house during a pandemic.
“Hey sorry, I was running a little late,” a woman’s voice interrupted her.
“It’s no -” she began with a smile, before she dropped her purse. Every hair on her skin lifted as she saw the woman - the thing - come into view, shaped like a woman, with long black hair like a woman, but without a nose, her mouth a Cheshire cat grin of razor sharp teeth.
Jennifer screamed, racing to her car as fast as she could, shaking like they do in the movies as she tried to grab her keys.
The thing was joined by the hair stylist she met before, looking at her bewildered, apparently oblivious to the creature's face. “Ma’am, are you alright?” she called, but Jennifer already had the car in motion. She didn’t exhale until she reached her house, running inside and locking the door.
“What, the literal fuck, was that,” she whispered, staring out her window.
She picked up the phone with shaking hands, calling Boyfriend #1. He was preoccupied, big surprise there. She dialed Boyfriend #2 who had just woken up even though it was two in the afternoon. “You are not going to believe what I just saw.”
“Don’t tell me you’re seeing the monster people, too.”
“Don’t tease me, this virus is real.”
Her boyfriend groaned, lighting up a cigarette. “Babe, you were probably just freaking out. There are no such thing as monsters, this whole thing is a bunch of bullshit.”
“Jake, I saw it,” she insisted. “It looked like a woman, but it had fangs and no nose - oh my God, it was horrible!”
Jake frowned. “Well you know what comes next. You can call the hotline, but they will tell you that you either have to stay home and quarantine, or they’ll put you in one of the wards.”
“Okay, but what if the people who are hallucinating don’t have some virus, what if those creature thingys are real?”
Jake suddenly went very quiet. “Jennifer, you better stop or I’ll have to call on you.”
Her breath caught in her throat. “You wouldn’t,” she whispered.
“I care about you, babe, I just don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
She threw her phone across the room.
She began to pace, biting her fingernails. Maybe it was just a trick of the light, maybe it was just from being stuck inside for so many days. She was not going crazy, she did not have some crazy, made-up virus. She grabbed her keys and flew back out the door.
A gust of wind hit her as she began to walk down her street, staring into the houses. She saw a few people in the windows, regular people with regular faces wearing masks. No creatures, no frightening hallucinations. She walked all the way to the corner of Burket and Main, where she saw a man walking his dog. He nodded in her direction, lifting his mask away to give her a smile. “Good afternoon,” he said pleasantly.
She stared in horror as he replaced the mask over his missing nose and razor teeth, his warm brown eyes still smiling as he continued on his way, his pet happily in tow. She waited until he’d turned the corner before she bolted back to her house, just to see a police car and ambulance nearby. They noticed her before she could run, so she took a deep breath, trying to calm down so she could talk her way out of things.
“Hello, ma’am, we received a call that you might be experiencing hallucinations?” a first responder approached her, his voice light and friendly behind his mask.
“Oh, that was just my boyfriend, he drinks a lot and likes to play pranks on me,” she said in an equally light tone, wishing her hair was down and out of a ponytail so she could flip it in the way men liked. “I was just out on a walk - I haven’t gone anywhere or seen any people. I stay six feet away when I see anyone walking towards me.”
“Well, we have to take any possibly exposure seriously right now,” another EMT told her, joining his co-worker. She tried not to think of what could be behind their masks. “We need to take your temperature.”
“Okay,” she said, trying to stay calm although she was shaking.
The back of the ambulance was already open, and they motioning for her to follow them.
She only glanced at the razor toothed smiles of the team waiting for her before they pushed her in, screaming as they tied her down onto the stretcher. “I just wanted to get my hair done!” she screeched as one grabbed her arm, jamming a needle into the vein. She began to sob, their hideous, distorted faces the last thing she saw before her entire world went blurry, and then faded to black.
Katrina stifled a yawn between her clipboard, safely hidden by the other med students as they listened to the resident reiterate the procedures for the HALU-20 ward. She loved abnormal psychology, but it seemed every new med student wanted to study the mysterious virus, and she liked to think of herself as unique. It had happened long enough ago that she was ready for the fad to die out, perhaps going back the old abnormal psych interests like schizophrenia or terraviral pathology. She figured it was because HALU-20 patients were still alive, giving students actual subjects to test, even though the virus had been eradicated almost thirty years ago. But even then, it was time to move on.
“Most of our patients are docile, but we have one here that has been consistently combative since we brought her in,” the resident explained.
The students took turns peeking through the window, observing a sad, old lady crouched by the wall, gently rocking back and forth with her arms tied behind her in a straight jacket. She was completely bald, her skin shriveled and spotted.
“Why did you shave her head?” one of the students asked.
“The hospitals were so overwhelmed with patients at the beginning that they had to start putting them in the older wards, some that still had wallpaper. During her isolation, she was convinced that a woman with blonde hair was trying to get out of the wallpaper, tearing it off bit by bit with her fingernails. When we put her in a straightjacket, she began using her teeth. The doctors thought it would be too traumatizing to remove the wallpaper completely, so they kept it but kept her restrained. One day, years later, a nurse took pity on her, untying her arms so she could eat, but the woman attacked her, ripping out the poor woman’s hair. The doctor figured out it was hair that caused her violence, so they shaved it in the hopes she’d remain calm.”
“That’s horrifying,” one of the students commented.
The resident nodded. “HALU-20 was a terrifying time. I’m just glad they found a cure.”
The students mumbled in agreement.
Katrina lifted herself up on her tiptoes to see the woman had turned to look at her, staring at her with angry eyes. She gave her a friendly wave, pulling down her mask to give her a smile.
The old woman screamed so loud, it knocked her back from the window.
The resident gestured for them to follow. “Come on, let’s keep moving,” he said. “Never a dull moment on the HALU-20 ward,” he joked as the woman’s screams reverberated through the halls, drawing nurses to her room.
Katrina sighed as they moved to the next hall. She wondered how much longer before the tour was over. She’d made a hair appointment for five.