His look turned serious. “Annie Virginia, I think you don’t know what you like, and it’s about time you found out.”
She knew he was right. She couldn’t go on the way she had been, waiting for a phone call that wasn’t going to come, crying constantly.
“You’ve got to take some risks, honey.”
“I take risks. I don’t floss every day, and sometimes I mix florals and plaids. Once I wore white shoes after Labor Day.”
Annie laughed—the first real, honest-to-God laugh since the shit hit the fan. “Haircut.”
“Blake always liked my hair long.”
Hank grinned. “Well, well. I guess you’re a little angry after all. That’s a good sign.”
Lurlene’s Fluff-n-Stuff was not the kind of salon Annie usually patronized. It was an old-fashioned, small-town beauty parlor housed in a Pepto Bismol–pink Victorian with glossy white gingerbread trim. A porch wrapped around the front of the house, offering shade to three pink wicker rocking chairs.
Annie parked beneath a hot pink sign that read: PARKING RESERVED FOR LURLENE’S CUSTOMERS ONLY. VIOLATORS WILL BE SUBJECT TO A CUT AND PERM. As she followed a walkway of heart-shaped cement stones up to the front porch, a tinny rendition of “It’s a Small World” seeped from a single black speaker by the door.
She stopped, suddenly afraid. She’d had long hair forever. What was she thinking—that a pair of scissors could recapture her youth? Calm down, Annie. She took a deep breath, draining away everything except what she needed to take a single step forward, to walk up those steps and get a haircut.
She had almost reached the top step when the front door whooshed open and a woman appeared. She had to be at least six feet tall, with a pile of Lucille Ball red hair that pooched up to the doorway. Someone had poured her statuesque body into a pair of sparkly red spandex pants (either that, or it was a coat of glitter paint). A tight-fitting angora sweater in a black-and-white zebra print strained across br**sts the size of the Alps. A huge zebra earring dangled from each ear.
The woman moved—an excited little shiver rippled along her whole body, right down to the gold Barbie-doll mules that encased her canoe-size feet. “You must be Annie Colwater. . . .” She pronounced it Colwatah in a Southern drawl as thick and sweet as corn syrup. “Why, darlin’, I been waitin’ on you! Your daddy said you wanted a makeover—why, I couldn’t believe my ears. A makeover in Mystic!” She bounded down the creaking steps like a Rose Bowl float. “I’m Lurlene, sweetie. Big as a moose, you’re thinkin’, but with twice the fashion sense. Now, sugah, you come on in. You’ve come to the right place. I’ll treat you like a queen.” She patted Annie and took hold of her arm, leading her up the steps and into a bright, white and pink room with a few wicker-framed mirrors. Pink gingham curtains shielded the view and a pink hook rug covered the hardwood floor.
“Pink is my color,” Lurlene said proudly, her drawl spinning the sentence into pink is mah colah. “The twin shades of cotton candy and summer glow are designed to make you feel special and safe. I read that in a magazine, and ain’t it just the God’s truth?” She led Annie past two other customers, both older women with their gray hair twined on tiny multicolored rods.
Lurlene kept up a steady chatter as she washed Annie’s hair. Oh, Lordie, I ain’t seen this much hair since my Disco Barbie doll. After she’d clamped a fuchsia plastic cape around Annie’s shoulders and settled her into a comfortable chair in front of the mirror, Lurlene peered over Annie’s shoulder. “You sure you want this cut? Most women’d give their husband’s left nut for hair like this.”
Annie refused to give in to the flutter of nerves that had settled somewhere in the region of her stomach. No more halfways. Not anymore. “Cut it off,” she said evenly.
“Of course you’re sure,” Lurlene said with a toothy grin. “Somethin’ shoulder length, maybe—”
“All of it.”
Lurlene’s painted mouth dropped open. “Off? As in . . . o f ?”
Lurlene recovered quickly. “Why, darlin’, you’re gonna be my crownin’ achievement.”
Annie tried not to think about what she’d done. One look at her own chalky, drawn face in the mirror, with her hair slicked back from her thin face, was enough to make her slam her eyes shut . . . and keep them shut.
She felt a tug on her hair, then a snip of steel blades, and a whoosh of hair fell to the floor.
Snip, whoosh, snip, whoosh.
“I shore was surprised when your daddy called. I’ve heard stories about you for years. Kathy Johnson—you recall her? Well, Kath and I went to beauty school together. ’Course Kath never actually finished—something about the scissors bothered her—but we got to be best friends. She told me tons o’ stories about when y’all were kids. I reckon you’n Kathy were wild and crazy.”
It was a name Annie hadn’t heard in years. Kathy and Annie, friends 4-ever. 2 good 2 be true. That’s what they’d written in each other’s yearbook, what they’d promised as the end of high school neared.
Annie had always meant to keep the friendship up, to stay in touch, but somehow she never had. Like so many childhood friendships, it had dwindled to nothing. Christmas cards for a few years, and then even that had stopped. Annie hadn’t heard from Kathy in years. The separation had started before high school was over, when Nick proposed to Kathy.
Annie could still remember the day she’d first seen him. Junior English. He’d walked in arrogantly, his blue eyes challenging everyone in the room. He was wearing ragged Levi’s and an overwashed white T-shirt, with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve. He wasn’t like anyone she’d ever seen before, with his wild, too-long black hair and don’t-mess-with-me attitude. Annie had fallen in love on the spot; so had every other girl in the room, including her best friend, Kathy.
But it was Kathy he had chosen, and with that choice, Annie had tasted the first salty wounds of a broken heart.
She smiled at the memory, faded and distant as it was. Maybe she’d go see them, try to kick-start the old camaraderie—God knew it would be nice to have a friend right about now. If nothing else, they could laugh about the old days. “How are Nick and Kathy?”
The scissors abruptly stopped clipping. “You ain’t heard?”
Lurlene leaned down in a cloud of rose-scented perfume. “Kathy died about eight months ago.”
Annie opened her eyes. A pale, chalky woman with hacked-off hair stared back at her from the oval mirror. She slammed her eyes shut again. When she found her voice, it was thin and soft. “What—”
“I been helpin’ out as much as I can—baby-sittin’ an’ such, but that child of his, Isabella, well . . . she just ain’t right in the head anymore. Got herself kicked out of school yesterday. Can you imagine that? A six-year-old gettin’ kicked outta school? Just what’re they thinkin’, I ask you? They all know about her mama. You’d think a little pity’d be in order. Nick’s been lookin’ for a nanny, but he finds fault with everyone I send him.”
“How did it happen?” Annie’s voice was a whisper.
“Just called her into the principal’s office and said, kiddo you’re outta school.” Lurlene made a tsking sound. “That child don’t need to get rejected again. What she needs is a daddy. ’Course a rabbit’s a better parent than he is right now—and they eat their young. I wish I could do more for ’em, but Buddy—that’s my husband—he says he raised his kids, all five of ’em, with his ex-wife, Eartha— you know her? She lives down around Forks. Anyway, Buddy don’t want to go through that again, not marryin’ Eartha, I mean, but raisin’ kids. And I’ve never had kids, what do I know about it? I mean, I can give her a durn fine cut and perm, and even paint her little nails, but I don’t know about much else. I don’t mind watchin’ her after school—she’s actually quite a help around the place—but she scares me, if the truth be told, what with her problems and all.”
It was all coming at Annie so fast. She couldn’t make herself really comprehend it. Kathy.
How could Kathy be dead? Only yesterday they’d been best friends, playing together in the schoolyard at recess in elementary school, giggling about boys in junior high, and double dating in high school. They had been friends in the way that only girls can be—they wore each other’s clothes and slept at each other’s houses and told each other every little secret. They promised to always stay friends.
But they hadn’t taken the time and energy to stay in touch when their lives went down separate roads . . . and now Kathy was gone. Annie hadn’t meant to forget Kathy. But she had, and that’s what mattered now. She had gone to Stanford, met Blake, and exchanged the past for a future.
“Nicky’s fallin’ apart, pure and simple,” Lurlene said, snapping a big bubble of gum. “Him and Kathy bought the old Beauregard house on Mystic Lake—”
The Beauregard house. An image of it came to Annie, wrapped up in the tissue-thin paper of bittersweet memories. “I know it. But you still haven’t told me how Kath—”
The hair dryer blasted to life, drowning out Annie’s question. She thought she heard Lurlene still talking, but she couldn’t make out the words. Then, after a few minutes, the dryer clicked off. Lurlene set the scissors down with a hard click on the white porcelain tile counter.
“Lordie, you do look fine,” Lurlene squeezed her on the shoulder. “Open your eyes, honey, and take yourself a peek.”
Annie opened her eyes and saw a stranger in the mirror. Her brown hair was so short there was no curl left. The pixie cut emphasized her drawn, pale skin, and made her green eyes look haunted and too large for the fine-boned features of her face. Without lipstick, her unsmiling mouth was a colorless white line. She looked like Kate Moss at fifty—after a lawn-mower attack. “Oh, my God . . .”
Lurlene nodded at her in the mirror, grinning like one of those dogs that sit in the back windows of cars. “You look just like that young gal that nabbed Warren Beatty. You know who I mean—the one from The American President.”
“Annette Bening,” said one of the ladies across the room.
Lurlene reached for her camera, a disposable. “I gotta get me a picture of this. I’ll send it in to Modern Do magazine. I’ll win that trip to Reno for sure.” She hunkered down in front of Annie. “Smile.”
Before Annie could think, Lurlene popped the photo and straightened, chewing on the scarlet tip of her acrylic nail. “I’ll bet there ain’t a hundred women in the world who can do justice to that haircut, honey, but you’re one of them.”
All Annie wanted was to get out of this room without crying. It’ll be all right. It’ll grow back, she told herself, but all she could think about was Blake, and what he would say about what she’d done when— if—he came back to her. Shakily, she reached for her handbag. “How much do I owe you?”