"THIS IS GOING TO STING," JEN SAID.
It did. Of course it did.
Bleach is acid, the great destroyer. You see, each of your hairs is protected by an outer layer called a cuticle, which holds in the pigment that gives the hair its color. The purpose of bleach is to destroy these cuticles so that all the pigment falls out. It's quick and dirty. Like smashing a bunch of fish tanks to release the fish, it leaves a mess. That's why if you go on to add coloring, a little bit swims down the drain every time you take a shower. Your fish tanks are broken.
I had known all this, but only in theory, because I'd always dyed my hair blacker, not lighter. (I was just adding more fish, not getting rid of the old ones.) So when Jen started daubing toothpaste-consistency acid into my hair, I wasn't prepared.
"That's what I said."
"Yeah, but... ow."
It felt like many thousands of mosquitoes were visiting my scalp. Like a bald man who'd fallen asleep at the beach. Like my hair was on fire.
"A lot like... having acid on my head."
"Sorry, but I maxed out the solution strength. We're going for major transformation here. It won't hurt as much next time, you know."
"Yeah. Your scalp loses a lot of feeling after the first bleach job."
"Great," I said. "I was looking to get rid of some of those extra scalp nerves."
"No pain, no gain."
"I'm feeling the gain."
She covered my head with a piece of aluminum foil - saying helpfully, "This makes it hotter, to strengthen the chemical reaction" - then flipped another chair out and sat down across from me.
We were in Jen's kitchen, which was small but clearly the workplace of a committed cook. Pots and pans hung from the ceiling, clanking lightly in the breeze from an exhaust fan working to remove the smell of hair acid. Two thousand dollars' worth of recently purchased non-Hunter party-wear hung among the pans, still covered in plastic to make sure my next credit card bill wouldn't kill me.
Jen lived here with her older sister, who was trying to break into being a dessert chef. Many of the blackened iron pans suggested the shapes of macaroons and ladyfingers, and there was a series of sifts for refining flour down to invisible dust.
The kitchen was retro or maybe just old. The chair on which I quietly writhed was vintage chrome and vinyl, matching the table's green-and-gold-speckled Formica. The refrigerator was also 1960s era, with a stainless-steel door handle shaped like a giant trigger.
As the acid slowly flayed my scalp, I found myself desperate for distraction.
"Has your sister had this place long?"
"It was my parents' when they first moved in together. We lived here until I was twelve, but they kept it after the Day of Darkness."
"The Day of Darkness?"
"When we moved out to Jersey."
I tried to imagine a whole family living here, and my melting-scalp discomfort was tinged with claustrophobia. Off the kitchen were two other smallish rooms with air-shaft windows. That was the whole place.
"Four people in this place? New Jersey must have looked pretty good."
Jen made a gagging noise. "Oh, sure. Great for my parents. But everyone out there thought I was a freak, with my kiddie-punk purple streaks and homemade clothes."
I thought about my own big move. "Well, at least you weren't too far away from home to visit."
She sighed. "Might as well have been. By the time I was fourteen, my Manhattan friends had all dumped me. Like I'd turned into a Jersey girl or something."
I remembered my peek into Jen's room when we'd arrived. It was classic Innovator: furniture collected off the street, a shelf overrun with notebooks, a dozen half-completed projects in paper and cloth. Three walls were covered, one by magazine clippings, one by a collage of found photographs she'd picked up off the street, and the last by a bulletin board painted to resemble a basketball court, on which magnetic Xs and Os held up pictures of players male and female. The loft bed made a cave for a small desk, where a laptop flickered in invisible communion with a wireless hub hanging on the wall. All the frantic clutter of a cool girl trying to make up for the Lost Years.
"When did you move back?"
"Last year, as soon as they let me. But it's hard to get your cool back after you lose it, you know? It's like when you're walking down the street, perfectly dressed, grooving to some excellent sound track in your head, and you trip on a crack in the sidewalk? A second ago you were so cool, and suddenly... everyone's just looking at you. You're back in Jersey." She shook her head. "Is that hurting?"
"How could you tell?"
"Something about the grinding teeth."
"When does it stop?"
She weighed invisible objects in her hands. "Depends. We can stop it anytime. But for every second of pain now, you'll be blonder and less Hunter-like when you come face-to-face with the bad guys tonight."
"So, it's pain now or pain later."
"Pretty much." She pulled the fridge's giant trigger and reached in for a carton of milk. From the jangling metal overhead, she acquired a mixing bowl and poured some in. "This is ready for when you can't stand it anymore."
"It neutralizes the bleach. It's like your head has an ulcer."
"That feels accurate." I steeled myself, eyes on the undulating white surface of the milk settling in the bowl. Blonder was better, safer. But the route to blond was long and hot.
"Distract me more," I pleaded.
"You grew up in the city?"
"No. Moved here from Minnesota when I was thirteen."
"Huh, the opposite of me. What was that like?"
I chewed my lip. It wasn't an experience I talked about much, but I had to talk about something. "Eye-opening."
"What do you mean?"
A finger of acid was making its way down the back of my neck. I rubbed it.
"Come on, Hunter, you can make it. Become one with the bleach."
"I am becoming one with the bleach!"
She laughed. "Just talk to me, then."
"Okay, here's the thing: Back in Fort Snelling, I was pretty popular. Good at sports, lots of friends, teachers liked me. I thought I was cool. But my first day in New York, I turned out to be the least cool kid in school. I dressed from a mall, listened to total MOR, and didn't have the first clue that people in other places did anything else."
"No, this is ouch. That was more like... being suddenly erased."
"That doesn't sound like much fun."
"Not really." My voice cracked a bit, related to the acid on my head. "But once I realized I wasn't going to have any friends, the pressure was off, you know?"
She sighed. "I do know."
"So it got kind of interesting. Back in Minnesota we had maybe four basic cliques: ropers, jocks, freaks, and socials. But suddenly I was in this school with eighty-seven different tribes. I realized that there was this massive communication system all around me, a billion coded messages being sent every day with clothes, hair, music, slang. I started watching, trying to break the code."
I blinked and took a breath. My head was melting.
I tried to shrug, which reorganized the pain in new and interesting ways. "After a year of watching, I went on to high school, where I got to reinvent myself."
She was silent for a moment. I hadn't meant to get into quite so much detail and wondered if the acid was seeping into my brain, making it porous.
"Wow." She took one of my hands. "Sounds horrible."
"Yeah, it sucked."
"But that's how you got into cool hunting, isn't it?"
I nodded, which sent a second little trail of acid down my back. My scalp was sweating now, trickles slow and incendiary, like flowing lava, as seen on a certain cable channel associated with wildlife, experimental aircraft, and volcanoes. I forced my mind away from the image.
"I started taking pictures on the street, trying to figure out what was cool and what wasn't and why. I got a little obsessive, which happens sometimes, and started writing commentary. Then that turned into a blog. And about three years ago Mandy saw my site and sent me an e-mail: 'The client needs you. "
"Huh. Happy ending."
I tried to agree, but at that moment the only happy ending would have been my head in a bucket of milk. A bathtub of milk. A swimming pool of ice cream.
"I guess that's why your bangs are so long," Jen said.
"I've been wondering about your hair. It seemed kind of weird that you were this cool hunter, but you had those bangs hiding your face." She reached across and flicked away a trickle of lava from my forehead just before it dribbled into my left eye. "But now I get it. When you moved here from Minnesota, you lost all your confidence. You had to hide for a while. So it makes sense: You're still hiding some of yourself."
I cleared my throat. "You think my bangs lack confidence?"
"I think maybe you're still scared that you might lose your cool again."
I felt my face flush. The kitchen felt hot and small and crowded. I couldn't tell how much was annoyance, how much was embarrassment, and how much was the acid on my head. I wanted to reach up and tear my scalp off, to scratch the giant mosquito bite that was my brain. The bleach was definitely leaking through.
Jen smiled and leaned forward until her face was inches away. She pursed her lips, and I thought for a crazy second that she was going to kiss me. My anger dissolved into surprise.
But instead she blew lightly, a delicate wind that cooled my damp face, sending a shudder through me.
"Don't worry," she said softly. "I'm going to fix all that. Those bangs are doomed."
I couldn't stay that close, so I laughed and turned away.
She waited until I turned back. "I know how it feels, Hunter. I lost my cool too."
"Not really, though. They just didn't get you."
"No, really. No matter what I did over there, I couldn't crack the code. All those girls in my eighth-grade class probably still think I'm some loser who writes poetry."
"Oh! Body blow," I said, trying to smile. But the memory of my first year in the city wasn't done with me yet. It was always there, a cold lump of clay in my stomach. I remembered the lump growing heavier every step of the way to school. Recalling that awful loneliness had invited it into me again, as if it belonged inside me.
I took a breath and willed myself into the present, where I was cool. Well, burning up actually and hunted by implacable foes and without my cell phone. But cool, right?
"I always thought aluminum foil on your head was supposed to prevent mind reading," I said.
Jen grinned, but only for a moment. "It's not mind reading. Like you said, it's all about reading codes. I just read a different set than you."
"You mean you use your powers for good?"
"Instead of helping giant shoe corporations? Maybe." She stood and dropped a washcloth into the mixing bowl of milk and lifted it, dripping, into the air before my wide eyes. She carried it behind me. "See what you think of my powers after this."
I felt the aluminum foil whisked away, and a cool and sovereign mass descended upon my head, transforming the burning acid into something benign, finally ending my agony.
"Oh...," I groaned.
There were still a few trickles of acid coursing down my neck and flickers of annoyance from being read like a book. It was much better when I was the one reading the codes. Everybody hates old pictures of themselves.
But when I looked in the bathroom mirror, I liked the result.
No pain, no gain.