Jean should have been safe. She was far from home, far from the office. What could possibly go wrong? But there he was, his bright red tousle of hair bobbing cheerfully along. Even worse, there she was, with the blue and white, red stop-signed RID box “One Application” metal nit comb included, right in her basket, as she stood last in line, and he was closing fast. Had she come five minutes earlier, she thought, she would have missed him altogether. Or five minutes later. But no. She should have been safe. Brandon’s face brightened when he saw her.
“Jean! Hi! Man, you’re far from home. My old roommate lives over by that new Home Depot Expo.” He nodded toward the west. “It’s a great place. What’re you . . .” He looked into her basket expectantly. “Oh.” Brandon knew now what she was doing and wrinkled his forehead. He changed the subject.
“Uh, how’s work? You still at the hotline?”
“Not bad. But I think I’m going to leave soon. I see it my future.”
“Yeah, well. Nice to see you.” Another lane had opened up and Brandon headed toward it without being invited or asking if Jean had a plan to leave or if, as he might well have done, if she was being psychic. It was an in joke, of course. You got that a lot if people knew where you worked. Jean supposed he didn’t want to be seen talking to someone with RID in the basket. Even talking was somehow a taint, old school. She sighed deeply and hoped the checker wouldn’t have to call for a price check: “Lice killer price needed on 4! Lice killer!” She wished for a moment she had thought to get something bulky to go over it. A nice box of maxipads maybe. Or the bikini line waxing kit from aisle 2. Life would have to go on. The checker scanned the box, told Jean the price, and reminded her to have a nice day. Jean thought of telling him she had other plans. Killing bugs right and left, for example.
The school had called earlier that morning. “Ms. Ransom, this is Kathy Bowen, the nurse over at Travis. I had to check Frankie’s hair today. The music teacher reported him. I didn’t see any bugs, but he had a number of eggs. With it being the last day of school and all, he doesn’t have to come home, but I have to report it.”
Jean got a sick feeling in her throat. “Oh my goodness,” she said. “My head’s been itching like I don’t know what. I’ve been asking around what it could be. I even called the dermatologist. They couldn’t see me until next week. Nobody in my family ever had lice before, really. I can’t believe it. But I guess I’ve got them too.”
Kathy Bowen laughed lightly. “Yes, perhaps you do. Itching’s one of the only symptoms. Get some RID or Qwell, clean all the brushes in the house, wash the bedclothes in hot water, and vacuum the furniture. It’ll be okay. I’m sorry.”
“I’m so embarrassed.”
“I’ve . . .well, don’t be. Just get the RID.”
“Nobody in my family . . . ”
“It’s no big deal. Really. Listen, I’d love to talk but with it being the last day and all . . .”
“Oh, sure. Thanks for calling.”
“Have a good summer. Bye now.” And so her good summer had begun with a trip to the not-so-safe store across town.
Any time more than one person is involved in anything, complications arise. Jean went to pick Frankie up and stood with him for the closing ceremonies. Balloons, the school song. One more wonderful year. First, she wanted to get Frankie home and tell him what had happened, then ask Jordan to watch him early. Frankie’d be distressed, but she wondered if Jordan would blow up.
“Frankie,” she said, once they were safely home, “Ms. Bowen called today. She said that one of your teachers asked her to check you for lice.”
“I know, Mom. I was there.”
“Oh. Sure, I know. Well, anyway, you have them. Did she tell you?”
“No. She just said there were some eggs or something. They must be really little, huh?”
“I guess. Nobody in the family ever had any before.”
Jean thought about it. She pictured the generations before her, down through the centuries, into the Dark Ages, and generally out into the wilds of an unknown nature. Surely, somebody in the family had developed every disease and affliction known in the world. Surely somebody, millions of sombodies in her family, had had lice.
“No. Nobody. That’s that. Not that I ever heard of, anyway. Frankie, how’d you get them? Have you been sharing a comb with somebody?”
“No, Mom. I put gel on first thing and never touch my hair again until night.”
“What about a hat? You probably snitched somebody’s hat for fun and put it on.”
“No, I didn’t. Really, I have no idea. What are we going to do?”
“Oh, there’s some poison to use. I suppose it’s some sort of shampoo.”
“Poison? Mama! Yuk. I bet it’ll smell awful. It’ll kill us!”
“These days they make roach poison smell good. Don’t worry about it, okay? It’s safe. I just bet Jordan’ll have a fit. Maybe I’d better run up and tell him.”
Jordan worked at a grocery store just past the corner, close enough to walk up if she needed to. She glanced at the clock and decided she could just make his break time. She pulled on her grubby, graying Nikes and headed off at a good pace. She passed the unnamed neighbor catty-cornered and thought how nice it was she didn’t have to tell him about the bugs. People did that these days, told more and more, until she wanted them to think for a minute what a burden it was for her to know about their cousin’s father-in-law’s affair with his deceased wife’s best friend. Her neighbor, about whom she delightfully knew almost nothing, was busy cutting the lawn with a quiet electric mower and waved to her. She began to slow down. For about a millisecond, it had occurred to her just to buy the RID there? That would have been rich. It was a neighborhood store, not a large one. Jean always saw at least one friend there or a PTA committee member. Jordan would have been mortified. Then she picked up the pace a bit. She did need a loaf of bread and the store had two loaves on for a dollar. Might as well do that and tell Jordan the news. Quietly, to the side. Not that he would actually be looking at her, of course. At 16 he didn’t look at her so much anymore.
As Jean rounded the corner of the last house, she gasped with a startled, “Oh.” Jordan was right in front of her so suddenly she was embarrassed to have been thinking of him, as if it were a sort of pitiful gossip. Jordan was never startled, or so it seemed. He just raised his eyebrows and explained, “Another guy came in early, so I got off.”
“Jordan, I need to check you. Frankie and I have lice. You might too.” The two loaves of cheap bread were forgotten in the dramatic reveal.
“No, Mom. I don’t have any.”
Jean was disappointed. She thought something of the news would shock him, make him wonder, anything, do better than an “I don’t care.” At least he hadn’t said that.
“How could you possibly know? We’ve got them. It’s very contagious, you know. They are…”
“I know,” he shrugged. “But Linsey just got over them about a month ago. I never had them.”
Jean thought of Linsey’s blond hair, straight and to her shoulders, tossed to the side regularly with her pretty girl hands. She blinked and knew the connection: a missing brush that Jordan brought home later from Linsey’s house, obviously filled with little lice eggs incubating and waiting for the school nurse to find their spawns’ spoors on Frankie while she herself itched for all she was worth.
“How’d she get rid of them?” Jean wondered if Jordan would get the connection.
“She got that poison shampoo stuff then combed her hair all the time. She even bought one of those steel combs that you have to pay extra for. But it didn’t work. It just took a long time with that little cheap comb.”
They’d turned and were walking home faster than was really necessary. Jean knew she couldn’t say anything about the connection. Jordan would get huffy and not speak to her for awhile. More than anything, Jean wanted to say, with great feeling, “I guess we got them from Linsey.” But she didn’t dare. It was a terrible thing to fear a child, she thought, in his words.
“At least you don’t have them. That’s the good thing,” Jean offered.
“Yeah. I guess I wash my hair a lot or something.”
Jean sighed. Linsey washed her hair twice many days, most likely. You don’t get that kind of bounce and luster for nothing. She wanted to tell Jordan washing hair often doesn’t prevent lice but also suddenly realized she would never be able to say the term “nit-picky” again with a straight face. Jordan reached the door first.” So many insights, so little time. “Don’t you have to go to work or something?” he asked.
“At six. You can watch Frankie?”
“Yeah. What’s for dinner?” Jean, pleased the topic had passed, had to think a minute.
“Umm, oh, there’s a pizza in the freezer. I’ve got a nice salad made. I’ll just make a sandwich when I get home.”
“Okay. See ya later.”
“Where are you going?”
“Just up to finish some homework. Let me know when you’re leaving. I’ll come down and get stuff ready for Frankie.
“I see. Well, don’t work too hard. See you in the morning. Love you.”
“Yeah, Mom.” Then he was off, taking the steps two at a time. Jean pulled the dread box out of the bag. The directions sounded grim: “Warning: For External Use Only. Do not use …near the eyes. Leave on 10 minutes…Comb out with special comb. Check regularly for nits.” Let the fun, the poisonous fun, begin. No time like the present, she decided. Getting the timer out, the towels, removing the potential for any possible overdosing dangers, off she went. Jean squinted in the mirror. She looked all right, she thought. Nothing obviously compromised. No mark of the little beasties.
Bending over the tub, Jean rinsed her hair. The medicine smelled only slightly like insecticide. Not too bad really. She lathered it up and closed her eyes, reaching for the timer by the tub. With careful fingers, she set it. Ten minutes seems like a long time, with wet, lice-ridden hair and your eyes shut!. Finally, finally, the thing went off and she turned the water back on. More lathering, and then she put hands through the shampoo and gathered the bulk of the lather, splatting! it on the tub. She then looked to see what she could see. Sure enough, little black dots swirled in the thinning bubbles. One of those ugghh-aha-yechh moments. Forestalling the urge to wash their survivors out again, she dressed for work.
At the hotline office, Jean sidled through to her cubicle, fourth one back in the sea of gray and taupe dividers. She kept hers plain and neat, with none of the rah-rah that some of her colleagues used to personalize their cells. A picture of Jordan and Frankie on her mother’s screened in porch. The last Christmas with Ben. Enough purpose to keep her going until midnight, anyway. The phone, the lead sheet, the prompts, the computer monitor. Hardly a home away from home, but something we all do with space, she thought, when we have a need to own it. She wondered about the time before there was a building, with infrastructure beams, floors, carpets, with cubes of people all through like a plasticized rabbit warren. In spare moments, which were rare these days, she tried to see in her mind’s eye the sky that would replace the building if it were gone, vanished into that air that is not so much thin as indiscernible to our poor human eyes . But there was no time for that now. The phone would start lighting up as soon as her shift began.
“Sister M’s Psychic Advisor,” she’d answer. Routine, routine, routine. After six calls, Jean had logged in her most average times. Sometimes kids would call more on spring break or Christmas when they were bored and their parents were distracted. But in May, with school almost out, activity previously limited to women needing direction, or the few college kids hiding their insecurities, blossomed again with kids thrilled to be out of school. If they realized how repetitive it all became, how much the same they all sounded, would she be out of a job? Maybe she would just switch to telemarketing. It’s all in the voice, after all, and Jean knew hers was good, compelling, even hypnotic. Not a teacher’s voice, she’d learned. The students, fascinated and spellbound, couldn’t seem to retain a word she said. Not good. They were, so to speak, spellbound which simply didn’t work for spelling tests.
“Sister M’s Psychic Advisor. Princess Jena is ready to answer your questions.”
“Is this Sister M?” It was always like that. No one listened. Jean had no need to look at her prompt for the 764th time.
“I am Sister M’s mentor and guide. She has special gift, does M, and I guide her as I am willing to guide you.” Jean was also busily, silently working to google in the phone information, addresses, databases, and so on. Not that a psychic needed that sort of thing of course…
“Uh, that sounds good. Are you, like, expensive?” The young voice was distinctly male, Texan by the area code, almost surely 15.
“Ah, an easy question, sir. No. The fee is minimal, you will find. Sister M wants to help you. She must charge to cover expenses, but even as her mentor, I am happy to be of service. Please take as long as you need.”
“Yeah, uh, sure. Ummm. I… well…I don’t know how to ask this, m’am.” As tempting as it was for Jean to reply “Then don’t,” she could never bear the potential for disaster that bit of sarcasm would bring. “Take your time,” she cooed softly. “The time is your money,” she thought, or your daddy’s.
“Okay, yeah…” He audibly took a deep breath. “So, is all this, like, private? Confidential? You know?”
Jean wondered who in the world would be interested in what any of the people who called might say. She could be surprised at first, but anymore, it was the same old same old. She could almost guess what this kid was about to mutter. “Why yes, of course, sir.” Her accent was so subtle that he could not have heard the tiniest hint of sarcasm, a point she had practiced for days.
“Okay, well, ummm…I think I’m gay. How can I tell?” It didn’t take a psychic to hear that coming. And just in the background, Jean could hear a snort and a snicker from the other teenaged boys in the room. Yes, almost surely 15 and surely bored. “Hey, let’s call one of those freakin’ psychos!” Ha.
Jean paused. In the manual, her response was clear: be non-judgmental, appropriate in tone, even though the question was so common, a commentary on the state of teenage mental limitations. “Let’s give those losers something to think about tonight!” might have been the cry of them all.
Jean said, “Is this then a problem that you would like to solve?”
More hoots in the room, louder now, shushed. “Uh, no. Not a problem. I just don’t know…I mean, I wanna know what to do now…like…do.”
Suddenly a power surge or something similar—Jean would say later it was a time-warped split second of eternity bursting through—whited-out the monitor screen. While she blinked her eyes, no less and no more, Jean could see where the boy was: the twin beds on opposite sides of the room, the other boys listening to the phone conversation or surfing or nodding along to an iPod, the ceiling fan breeze moving the upper papers on the bulletin board. Justin, as that was his real name, was playing a game on his laptop while he was on the phone. Jean knew the names of all the others too: Deej on another laptop, Ian watching Justin, Charlie with his music. Jean could hear it as well as he could, though she was too astonished to do more than register an Elvis tune, as if she had all the power of observation ever given to anyone even though she was there only in her mind. Of course it would be possible to hear what was playing and what game was being won by whom. Of course she could see into the minds and thoughts of these four boys. Ian really was gay, not Justin, but no one knew. Charlie had a brilliant mind that he too had to hide. It was a challenge for him to do average work in calculus, A’s but not dramatic ones. Deej has music in his soul. For someone his age, it gave him pain, deep within his heart, sometimes an ache so real that he supposed he was going to die. He would have the good fortune to make a fine living from music. And not only that, he would write a melody now being worked in the recesses of his mind that the world would someday sing. She was the first on earth to hear it, outside Deej’s mind, but in 14 years everyone on the planet would know it.
The most surprising of all, though, was where she saw Justin. Rather, she heard it first, the mechanical breathing in the spacesuit, quiet but sourced—a connection to life and a time that forged dear with excitement. She couldn’t tell where he was at first. The landscape was bare, sandy, red. He—she—looked back at a craft. It was then she realized Justin was on Mars. And not just on Mars. The first human to set foot there. His heart rate was up. Houston was reminding him to remain calm. He was about to make a reply, hesitated said instead, “Thanks Sister M.” Houston squawked, squeaked, and he went about the business of contacting the great blue marble. Jean could feel his smile. A mission accomplished.
As quickly as she had seen the room, its occupants, and Mars, in the time of that single blink, Jean was back at the call center, breathless. Justin must have been talking while this happened; he was just finishing some sentence or question and waiting for a reply. She had no idea what he’d said, but she knew what she had to say.
“How do you know my…”
“Just listen, Justin. I don’t have much time. I can’t explain how I know all this. Just listen.” Any hint of an accent was gone. Her purpose was clear and sure. She had to tell Justin what she had seen before anyone overheard what she was doing. This was, to say the least, definitely off the script.
“Tell Ian to mind his own business and make his own call. Tell Charlie college will be different. He can be who he really is, but for now, hang in, fit in, whatever. It’s ok. Tell Deej not to spend so much time playing online poker. He needs to work on his music more, now and not later, before he gets to college. Got all that?”
Silence on the other end. ”Uh, lady, how do you know all this stuff? You got some kind of webcam, something like spyware down there?”
“I can’t explain it. It just happened. This is the real thing, Justin, not some rip-off. I don’t know what happened. But there’s more.”
“Are you, like, in a prison or crazy farm somewhere? I heard they got prisoners on 800 numbers.”
“No, I’m just somebody’s mom. Listen, there’s more. You, Justin, you have no idea. Someday, you’re going to be an astronaut. In fact, you’re going to Mars. And more point in fact, you’re going to be the first human there.”
“Right. Lady, you are freakin’ nuts. And when is all this supposed to happen?”
Jean realized she had no idea. As much as she had seen, the how and when were missing, except for Deej’s song. “I don’t know when for you. I just know it will.”
“Just how do you, like, know?” He sounded somewhere between irritated and scared.
“I don’t know how to explain. Something happened. I don’t know what. I could in that instant suddenly see you and your friends now at your house and you in the future. Really, I have no idea how it happened.”
“Freakin’…We all know you people are a bunch of fakes. Kids just call to pull your chain, ya know? This is like some stupid TV show.”
Oh yes. She knew that well, the motive and the sorry state of television that had this sort of thing. “Sure, sure. Listen. What would be my purpose in making this up? I’ve got all these things I’m supposed to say, and then I get this ZAP! or whatever it was. I don’t know why. I don’t know why you. But I can tell you from the bottom of my soul, it was real. I could see it all.”
“Whatever. Anybody up there know you’re doing this?”
Jean suddenly remembered that she certainly did have people who might be vaguely interested that she was spouting off real prophecies. Guaranteed to elicit calls from upset parents. Taking up way too much time (and hence somebody’s money) and going out of character. None of that took a psychic.
“No. I’ve got to go. Don’t be upset. Someday you’ll thank me for this, really, you will, when you get there. I’m Jean Don’t forget. Gotta go, bye.” As she went for the disconnect, she could hear the protest.
“WAIT! Woman, what the freak!”
It was a moment to be savored. Jean closed her eyes and thought of Mars. The redness, the bareness, the stark absence of anything alive. She understood, now, that it was because no human had ever needed the place. We were not there, not yet, so there was no reason for anything to live. But that was going to change. Life would come. Life would stay. It was a mighty thing, for hers to be the first name uttered there. A name that no one would know was hers, without some research. And not like those millions of names of people who’d had to pay, lying quietly on the email lists being taken up to space. Likely, even, her company would be gone by then. Jean wondered if she’d even be around to hear it. None of that potentially important information had made it across the great divide. It didn’t matter. A mystery in the Age of Google is not a bad thing.
Then she thought of tomorrow, the real one. This job wasn’t what she could do any longer. Again, it didn’t take a psychic to predict the fury of first level management, second level management. Maybe Sister Whatever herself would get wind of the whole thing. Not good. Better just to give notice, walk out now, and take that two week vacation she had coming. In that real tomorrow, Jean could land another job. After this one, anything else would seem easy. “I see from the record that your account is 30 days overdue. Have you made a payment in the past 24 hours?” Another script, another encounter with the highest levels of human invention, or not. The stories could come from the called and not the caller. Not a bad thing. Jean, slipping her headset off, saw it was only 30 minutes into her shift. She had the urge to get home as quickly as possible. The bugs were calling. As she went to sign out for vacation and to resign, Brandon seemed to be calling: “So where are you off to?”
“Home. Always home. I’ve got nits to pick.”