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Rat Girl Rat Boy

by Cynthia Flood

edited by Kevin Chong

In Marcia’s favourite book, Cinderella’s stepsisters had thin carroty hair. So did Hansel and Gretel’s mother, and the wicked fairy who wasn’t invited to the christening, but Snow White’s stepmother had rolling auburn curls. They gleamed. Her image, doubled by the speaking mirror, filled a page and made Marcia’s insides feel hollow. She looked so often that the book readily fell open just there. The aunt who’d given it to her was pleased. Then in a magazine of Mum’s, left open, Marcia saw an ad for shampoo. Carefully she cut out the sheet of rippling hair, mahogany-red. In her small room she looked about. Where? Mum was always cleaning. The bookcase? The image slid into Chickadee, a gift from the other aunt. In time all the back issues thickened with highlights, streaks, conditioner. Always there were more blondes and brunettes, even silvers, than redheads. Never enough. At night, Marcia did not argue for a later bedtime. After kisses from Mum and the aunts, she used her flashlight to choose from the shelved treasury. Back under her quilt she stroked the invisible hair, imagined colour, then slid the paper beneath her mattress. She remembered, every morning, to hide it again. At school, this September for the first time the kids sat in rows. There was a new girl. Her desk was in front of Marcia’s, and down her back cascaded red-gold hair, a shining tumble drawn in by a scrunchie. Beyond reach. The ripples came nearer when the teacher moved the class into small groups, yet as the weeks went by the row suited Marcia best. For hours each day the red was right before her. There might be a ribbon. Sometimes the hair swayed free once past a pair of frail barrettes at the temples. Red-girl’s fat face was milk with small pale eyes. Irrelevant. That hair enlivened Marcia’s fingers, the crevices where they met her palms, the palms themselves. Her inner wrists shivered at the nearness of the silky warmth. Mesmerizing, how the classroom’s fluorescent beam bent one way on a curl’s crest and another on its hollow, while a single hair, fallen, made a sleek red thread on a sleeve. Marcia’s glances often punctuated subtraction and silent reading and graphs, but her hands still ached. One day the new boy behind Marcia -- he’d transferred in after Thanksgiving -- signalled the arrival of flu season by abruptly throwing up. “Ewwww!” The teacher led the boy away. He reminded Marcia of the rats of Hamelin, though his teeth weren’t quite so prominent. Under his lips his chin sloped right back, and his scrape of blond hair ended in a rat-tail. To give the janitor space to clean up the pooled vomit, the kids shoved their desks closer. Now the red strands lay heaped before Marcia. Curls slid between her fingers, rode over and under knuckles and thumbs. As with the scissors long ago, she took care. No lift, no intrusion must be detected. For an unnameable time, all went well. Then Red-girl reached for a dropped pencil. In a nanosecond Marcia let go but emitted a sound. Had the kids on either side noticed? Smirk, grimace -- no, these weren’t about the continuing stench of pine cleanser mixed with puke. Chilled and flaming, Marcia held her own pencil tight. Her other hand grasped her seat as the gold-red swirled and bounced. Once the girl put her head back, laughing. Like a tide, hair rolled in towards Marcia’s chest, then out. When Red-girl scrubbed at her spelling with an eraser, the curls slid ssshhh-ing back and forth across Marcia’s desk, inches away. Sssshh. Her fingertips still hurt when she got home. “What’s that nasty smell?” Mum sniffed her head. Marcia got a special hair-wash and some of Mum’s own conditioner. In bed, she cried at her old ignorant pleasure in bits of crumpled paper. Next day one aunt said, “Her hair’s actually got some gloss now. Not so mousy. Pity it’s straight as string.” “Her hair is fawn,” said the other. “Fawns are pretty.” Her mum sighed. “I just wish she had more friends.” “Had any, you mean,” said the first. “She’s a loner. Like him.” “Marcia is not like him!” Rat-boy came back to school. As he walked down the hall, some boys made vomiting noises. He made them too, more loudly, and laughed. Thus he joined the group that sneered and swaggered about the playground, tripped up kids coming out of the portables. Every time Rat-boy went to his desk, he bumped Marcia’s, not hard, with his right leg. She didn’t look up. Marcia agreed to go to a birthday party. One aunt said, “Get her hair cut, first. All those split-ends.” “At least he’s not obsessed with her looks, not like some people!“ “Long and loose suits Marcia,” said the second. “She’s like a girl in a fairy-tale.” “Hopeless,” said the first. Red-girl wasn’t at the party. A circle game was played. In darkness, mysteries passed with shrieks from hand to hand. What is it? Guess! Slithery spaghetti, peeled grapes. Unseen, Marcia touched the hair of the girl beside her. Stringy, dry. Hateful. She wiped her fingers on her dress and then received a double handful of chunked-up pomegranate, for brains. In the birthday girl’s bedroom there were still some dolls, recently set aside. No redheads, but one brunette had braids all down her back. Silky-soft. Marcia undid them, did them up. After the other girls drifted back to the party room, she found nail-scissors in a bathroom. Right by the skull she cut off a braid, and then hid the doll under all the others. Doll hair was way, way better than paper. The red was imaginable. At school, Rat-boy and his pals used their armpits to make squelching sounds as girls went by, or they pretended to fart. They got into the girls’ washroom, dumped wastebaskets, gashed the vending machines. In his newsletter to parents, the principal alluded obliquely to all this. “Do these boys ever bother you, Marcia?” “What boys?” “Can’t you ever listen?” Her mother read aloud again. Marcia shrugged and went upstairs. The first aunt said, “I bet she has a crush.” “She’s just eleven!” “Have you forgotten what we were like?” The first looked from sister to sister. “Maybe you just don’t want to remember.” Weeks later, the mother of the birthday party girl surfaced. While house-cleaning she’d exposed the mutilated toy. Her daughter had said at once, “Marcia, that weirdo. Why did you make me ask all the girls?” The principal and guidance counsellor showed Marcia’s mother the doll. Marcia, also present, at first admitted nothing. After she gave in, the grown-ups sent her out into the hall to wait. Rat-boy came by and saw her sullen on a bench. His eyebrows went way up. He winked, raised his thumb. She stared. “I’ve never been so ashamed,” said Marcia’s mum that evening. The first aunt laughed. “Not true!” “Shut up. You just shut up.” The second asked softly, “Marcia, can you tell us why you did it?” The mum finally demanded, “Where is that thing anyway?” Soon enough she found the braid, under Marcia’s mattress. The girl watched, tense, as Mum rummaged through closet and dresser-drawers but hardly glanced at the bookshelf. At school, the only scissors provided were short and blunt. Marcia, her mother’s sewing basket in hand, hesitated. She put it back. Next day she took it out again. There was really no choice. Then she waited. Waited. A month went by, thirty-one calendar squares for a child who beheld at close range, five days a week, what she desired. Once, in the change room after gym, Red-girl stood close enough for Marcia to smell her hair. Rat-boy now bumped Marcia’s desk hard. If she tucked her feet under her chair, he’d stick his forward to kick her. Once he waited on a street corner near the school and tried to walk alongside. When she paid no attention, he followed her. The mum said, “Marcia seems much better now, doesn’t she?” “Didn’t you get that wake-up call?” said the first aunt. “It’s a dangerous age she’s going into. As you should know.” The second said, “Marcia’s imaginative. Creative.” “She makes things up! Those fairy-tale books just encourage that.” The mum stated, “My little girl doesn’t tell lies, and you needn’t remind me what I did as a teenager. You did plenty too.” The second aunt asked the mum gently, “Aren’t you at all worried?” “Marcia’s fine.” “Fine,” said the first. “Yes, but I didn’t get caught. Not many single mums have your support system, either.” “Another reminder I don’t need.” “What about love?” asked the second. “No one’s mentioned love.” The mum looked down. The first aunt rolled her eyes. “Don’t you remember wanting, wanting till your heart hurt?” Marcia’s class, during the monthly school assemblies, sat cross-legged on the floor near the back of the gym. At November’s gathering Rat-boy was right behind her, she right behind Red-girl. Down that back the autumn-leaf hair fell gleaming. They were all three well away from the teacher, who shot a warning look at Rat-boy when she turned to inspect her class. Announcements. A skit from Grade Two, a song from Kindergarten. Applause for the Grade Seven track-and-fielders. As always the principal concluded the program. Marcia’s nerve broke during the first burst of clapping. Her hand wouldn’t go into her pocket. She shook. During the second round she didn’t even try. As the speaker reached his punch-line, Marcia recalled that fairy tales offered three chances only. Grasping a tress, she raised the open blades just as the laughing girl flung her head back hard and Rat-boy reached around Marcia to grab where her breasts would have been if she’d had any. Time, many people said. Give it time. Give her time. Just let time pass. Which it did, though not because anyone let it. Red-girl never came back to school. Rat-boy was transferred out. Vacuuming, her mother banged Marcia’s bookshelf. Some magazines slid off and released their store. “A blizzard of paper when I shook all the Owls out,” she wept to her sisters. “ Why?” “The girl was plain, I hear,” said one aunt. “So it was love.” The other’s expression said Slut. “But why?” “I hope you burned the lot.” A decade later, her mother’s question stayed with Marcia too. Often her desire was water not wine, skim not cream. The colour of hair didn’t matter any more, its brilliance, lushness, fire. Afterwards, a sense of insufficiency came. Then she refused or excused herself from more lovemaking. She got out of whatever bed she’d got into and went off elsewhere, over the hills and far away and still with that hollow inside.