Jennifer Falkner

Head Cases

The newsletters from the school are purple. Fieldtrip permission forms are white. It’s the caution-tape yellow notes I dread. The ones that announce another case has been detected. Yellow notes never use inflammatory language like outbreak or infestation. Despite their hysterical colour, the notes seek a calm approach. There has been an incident. Parents are advised. Please inform the school if your child. And then the stapled information sheet from the city health board which I could recite in my sleep.

There are suspicious glances among parents at the school gate. Which is the dirty family, the neglectful parent, making the rest suffer?

This was the third yellow note since September. Head checks in the morning. Head checks at night. No red bumps behind the ears or back of the neck. No telltale scratching. Nevertheless I find three on Amy, crawling through her hair like they owned the place. No bigger than a poppy seed. One on Georgia.

Another trip to the pharmacy. The cashier drops the box containing the shampoo and complimentary blue plastic comb into a plain paper bag. She recoils slightly as I hand over my bank card, as if they could jump that far. Maybe nobody told her they don’t have wings.

Now the girls are in the bath, wearing pink dollar-store shower caps over their medicated heads. Amy complains that the shampoo tickles her head while Georgia keeps pushing the shower cap’s too-big elastic up off her forehead where it keeps sliding down. I have ten minutes to strip the beds, dump the sheets and pillowcases into a hot cycle and try not to worry about the hydro bill after this unexpected usage. Stuffed animals are easier. They get scooped off the bed and dumped into a black garbage bag. A night on the balcony in twenty below will do the trick.

I imagine their little bodies frozen like crystals in the fun fur of the pink dragon and Amy’s brown bear. I am merciless. Without mercy. And so tired.

The kitchen is like an interrogation room. One chair in the middle of the floor, the office lamp with the long neck clamped to the counter and trained on the chair. Amy’s watching cartoons in the living room, waiting her turn, while I section and resection Georgia’s hair. Juggling the comb, hair and magnifying glass is difficult and more than once one of them drops to the floor and I have to start again. The eggs are laid close to the scalp. They’re like grains of sand until the eggs have hatched, then they become translucent. The first time the yellow notes came home, what I found actually were grains of sand but I didn’t know better then. I doused everybody in pyrethrin before realizing the truth.

One nymph crawls out of hiding. I trap it with the comb and pinch it between my fingers.

“Did you find one, Mummy?”

“Nope. You’re all clear.” I wipe my fingers on my jeans.

There are treats for being good. Chocolate before bed is never a good idea but I can’t think of anything else.

Finally both girls are done. Teeth are brushed. Stories are read. Tears over Teddy’s temporary absence are wiped away. “He’s a bear, I say, “with lots of fur and sometimes he likes to sleep outside. It reminds him of the North Pole.” The North Pole makes Georgia think of Santa, generally a shortcut into good behavior.

Then it’s my turn. I pick up the phone. “Can you come now?”

Twenty minutes later Linda walks in. She cocks her head to the side, looking over the set-up in the kitchen. “Can we move this to the living room? My feet are killing me.”

The lamp is brought over. Linda collapses into the sofa and I sit between her legs. I hand her the magnifying glass and the comb. Linda’s fingers delicately section my scalp, tracing its cartography, and pleasurable shivers run up and down my neck. I feel like I have never been more intimate with someone than I am right now with my little sister. My eyes close and my head drops a little.

I am briefly grateful for the caution tape-yellow notice; for once someone else is in charge. I am in someone else’s hands. Then I’m asleep.

Jennifer Falkner’s previous writing credits include Vintage Script, The Nassau Review, THEMA and The First Line. She also edits Circa, an online journal dedicated to historical fiction.