Five-year-old Cornelia has hacked off her hair with pink scissors. Her mother walks in and sees long locks, peach-scented, corn-husk blond, scotch-taped to a doll's rubber head.
The doll needed hair, Cornelia says, her voice a whispered poem, her scabbed knees cratering the carpet. Who knows why they're scabbed? The girl is reckless, always running, always falling. The scabs never get a chance to heal.
The mother has flour handprints on her apron. The apron's floral pattern is unnatural looking. Surreal blues and golds and oranges. No God could make flowers like these but here they are, an approximation of real, spreading across the fabric.
The window in Cornelia's bedroom is open. It's started raining. The wheels of a forgotten human's shopping cart rattle across the pavement, wet now, seven stories below. Voices murmur in the street. The people in the street are always murmuring. Hairless Cornelia smiles at her mother, whose right hand grips the doorjamb like the building is moving. Like her fingers could juice the Earth.
The building really is moving, though. The bass of the neighbor's woofer wails against the wall at all hours. The mother lies in bed at night and watches cracks in the plaster grow with each drumbeat. She's asked them to turn it down a hundred times. They do, but it doesn't last. They play Mr. Mister and A-ha and Hall and Oates. The cop in the framed photo on the mother's dresser looks like Hall. Or maybe it's Oates. Whichever one has the dark hair, the piercing gaze, the creepy mustache.
There is zero compunction in Cornelia's voice as she explains why she's cut her hair. Less than zero. Because the cop in the picture, her father, is in a box in the ground. He's a ghost, a concept, a disembodied voice belting out pop songs on the other side of the wall. He wasn't shot. Heart didn't stop mid-chase. He died of organ failure, not in his uniform but in a standard-issue hospital gown. Feeling sorry about the whole thing got him nowhere but heaven. So fuck compunction.
Cornelia kneels on the carpet, styling the doll's new hair. Her own hair is already beginning to grow back. When it is two inches from her shoulders, diabetes kills her mother. Cornelia chops off her hair again and gives it to the doll.
Rain falls on six funeral mourners. Cornelia is one of them, standing in her black dress, flexing her knees, watching a languid bird land on a telephone wire across the street. She does not cry, not even once.
She goes to live with Susan, her mother's closest friend. Susan is nice enough. Divorced, childless. She has a bird that never sleeps. Ollie, not Polly. Fucking thing doesn't even talk. It just screeches all night. Sometimes it says real words, but it mispronounces them, puts them in the wrong order. Surrounds them with nonsense.
Listening to Ollie gab is like trying to dial in the radio at Camp Meadowlark, a bunch of preteen girls huddled together in a cabin after lights out, searching the airwaves for music and finding only a few clipped phrases cutting through the static.
Rutgers, then NYU. Susan sitting out there in the crowd, eyes welling up. Then a law degree hanging on a wall in an office on the fortieth floor.
Cornelia works late, sometimes till midnight. The empty skyscraper's air conditioning stirs papers on her desk. Her monitor glows stupidly in the dark. She gets up, walks to the window, looks down: little cars glide across the grid, headlights burning. Her hair is no longer blond. It's brownish, shot through with gray. She will not dye it no matter how gray it gets. She will not apologize.
She sees an object rising toward her: a balloon. The helium in the balloon is nearly in equilibrium with the surrounding air, so that she can't tell if the balloon's upward movement is a function of the helium's rise or the thing's just at the whim of wind rushing between glassy buildings.
The balloon reaches her floor. It's orange. Printed on one side is a cartoon face. It has a mustache. It vaguely resembles Hall or Oates. The balloon's face stares at Cornelia through the glass, regarding her with indifference. Neither happy nor sad, it just bobs there outside the window, slash-mouthed, like it's resting on the surface of a lake thirty seconds after a boat has passed. Finally, it continues climbing.
Cornelia walks briskly to the elevator. Not walking briskly would surrender her to some kind of implacable doubt. The ding of the elevator reaching the rooftop is startling. Wind assails little shrubs near the railing. Cornelia sees no moon.
She looks over the edge, spies the balloon coming her way, rising. She decides: If it passes within arm's reach, she will grab it by the ribbon and take it down to her office. She will stab it in the face with scissors. If it does not pass within arm's reach, she will watch it drift away. Then she will go home to her loft and sit in her red skirt on her quartz countertops, drinking wine. Either way, an expensive stylist will artfully chop off her hair tomorrow.
Standing there at the railing, waiting for the balloon, Cornelia knows she could never jump, but she understands why someone would, falling being a decisive act, a shearing off of time. She remembers her mother's face the night she first cut her hair, the look of someone who has grossly miscalculated.
Cornelia knows why the windows on the fortieth floor don't open. Everyone is sealed inside for safety, although it turns out the most important parts of the sky are unreachable anyway, even from the rooftop. Keeping the windows sealed is just a way to make sure no one ever has to rush across the room to shut them, the way mothers do, for as long as they're around, to keep out the rain.
About the Author: Chad Schuster‘s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Hobart, Gulf Stream, Juked and elsewhere. He lives near Seattle with his wife and two children. Find him at www.chadschuster.com or on Twitter @Chad_Schuster.
Story Song: "Everytime You Go Away" by Hall & Oates