By lunchtime, Zoe still had not separated from her hat. Each ﬁrst day was the same routine, and this one was no exception — rules to the classroom, introductions on curriculum, personal information letters to ﬁll out and sign. I trudged through this ﬁrst day of school as slowly as one would trudge through mud, only to emerge sick and tired. But at the back of my mind, Zoe and Taylor loomed in my peripheral vision. I caught her in the hallways sometimes with Taylor still perched on her head, observing the scene from ﬁve feet up. It didn’t come off in Homeroom, even though Mrs. Freman asked Johnny to remove his baseball hat. He, of course, made a fuss, complaining that if Zoe has a hat on, why shouldn’t he? I cradled my head and tried to block out the incompetence of my classmates. Mrs. Freman tried to explain that he shouldn’t care what other people were doing, life wasn’t fair, yadda yadda yadda.
In math class (the only class Zoe and I share), Taylor was on her head, even as Danny complained that he couldn’t see over her extra height.
Now, at lunch, Taylor sat proudly atop her head, gloating to me how much of a best friend he was to Zoe — how they never parted. I rolled my eyes to myself at the thought of possibly competing with a fedora and plopped myself down at our usual table near the window. Lia and Zoe were already there, sitting across from me.
“Hey, Lia. Hey, Zoe,” I said. “Hey, Taylor.” Today’s lunch was grilled cheese. I used to think that it was impossible to mess up something so simple as a toasted sandwich, but now I know the truth. The cheese was a rubbery mess, oozing from the slabs of burned bread and onto my tray like guts from a squashed bug. I tried my best to think of another analogy as I picked at the lunch.
“Zoe, why won’t you let us see the hat?” Lia looked as though she were begging since before I arrived.
“C’mon, Zo, surely you can’t wear that hat all of the time,” I joined Lia. I knew that it was probably wrong of me to team up against Zoe like that, but I had to know what the story behind it was. I had a feeling that there was more to Taylor than she let on. Plus, I may have been more than a little bit jealous of the hat for coming so close to replacing me.
“Yes, I can. And I will.” Zoe protectively put one hand on the rim of Taylor. I leaned in across the table, eyes sparkling.
“Zoe,” I whispered with a mischievous inﬂection. “If you don’t let us see the hat….Lia and I might have to steal it!” I grinned as Lia lit up like a lightbulb. Zoe, however, seemed to have darkened. Her eyes went wide.
“You wouldn’t dare,” she whispered. I giggled and made a snatch at Taylor, causing Zoe to jerk back her head.
Stealing each other’s things was a common game my friends and I played. Often, one of my friends would leave the table for water or to buy a snack, only to return to ﬁnd a bag of chips gone, hidden under the table. Sometimes, Zoe didn’t even notice until either Lia or I subtly pointed it out. Then, she’d put her hands on her hips and stare at us until we pulled it back up from the table. Other times, I would make obvious snatches for the book that Lia usually brings to lunch, turn to a random page, and start to read out loud. It was all in good fun, teasing and mild horseplay. No one ever took offense at being robbed. It was just a natural part of our friendship.
So I guess that I should have realized something was wrong before my ﬁngers closed around the rim of the fedora.
I jerked it off and held it above my head like a sword from a stone, cheering, before dropping it lightly onto Lia’s head. But Lia wasn’t celebrating. She stood, still as marble, staring at Zoe. Her face was a mask of shock and horror. Tentatively, I inched my eyes away from Lia to meet Zoe’s. They were misting over with tears. She was frozen, too. She held my gaze as it found its way to the top of her head, to the throne where Taylor had previously sat, to a circle clearing in the center of her hair. The brown ﬂuff that I had envied so much last fall, the glossiest hair, before she put on Taylor for the ﬁrst time, had vanished. In its place was ﬂesh, peppered with buds of new hair peeking through the gland. It looked like a lush rainforest had been cleared in the very center of her scalp and was trying unsuccessfully to replenish. It felt as though the entire cafeteria had fallen silent, as though all conversations were turned into white noise in the back of my skull.
Zoe simply stared at me as I stared at her. My arms found their way back to my side and Lia slowly reached for Taylor, as if a sudden movement could kill her. Zoe blinked once, sending a waterfall of teardrops cascading down her cheeks, leaving slippery footsteps. The tears seemed to snap her back to reality, and she suddenly rose from the table. The sound returned, conversations about school, about activities, about summers. But there were fewer sounds than before. Without even taking my eyes off of Zoe, I could tell that students were turning to look, one at a time. I could barely choke out an apology before she sprinted out of the cafeteria, hands on her head, protecting it from the deadly stares that followed her.
I slammed the stall door behind me and sat on the toilet seat, not caring that it was open, not caring that my jeans were absorbing toilet spittle. I clutched my head and moaned. My ﬁngertips were prickled by the shameful spikes of growing hair, a reminder of what I had done.
I knew that I shouldn’t, that I couldn’t, especially not after what had just happened, but I had no control of my hand as it repositioned itself into a claw. My nails closed around a newborn hair and I pulled, relishing the soft feeling of relief it gave me. Everything’s ﬁne, Zoe. It’s okay. I could feel its reassuring whisper on my skin, how it slipped out of its gland without a hitch. I brought it before my leaking eyes and rolled it between my ﬁngers. Small and black. The best kind. The ones that felt the best and looked the most delectable before pulling from any location at all, including the top of my head.
I steered my prize claw back to my bare head and chose another. I’ll stop. I know I will. I have to, eventually. But not today, not now, not like this. I thought that they would understand: That they would know not to cross the boundary. That they could take a hint.
My eyes closed as I removed a third, then a fourth. Each sent a wave of relaxation through my muscles.