At the Neon Studios Salon, tails creeped luxuriously along the napes of necks in shades of lavender and pearl—and I wanted one—one that hissed and shimmered, one that blinked with long eyelashes and snaky curves. My mother said that no self-respecting daughter of hers would ever go there. Rumor had it that the walls were filled with the bones of the dead, but it was also the best place to get the latest hair styles, the kind that all of the boys at school liked.
To get a boy to like you, everyone knew you had to have the stair-step bob with the long, leafy tail that sprung to life, growing in the back—the one that made the boys sneak a hand up there and run the tail through their fingers, hoping it would lick them.
“I’ve seen the way boys behave when girls your age grow a tail, letting it swing to and fro while walking, swaying their hips. Don’t ever disrespect yourself like that. Don’t get used,” my mother had said, but I didn’t see the harm.
The tails were mesmerizing. Everyone I knew wanted one, and everyone’s grew in differently, in different colors. My friends told me that after the stylist washed their hair and trimmed it, they pulled out a sharp knife and cut an indentation in the nape of the neck. They said the stylists kept gems in various shapes and colors in a special drawer and would insert one into the cut. My friends swore that it didn’t hurt at all because the knife was incredibly sharp, and the stylists had a special license to perform light surgical procedures. Once the gem, which was gel-like, was inserted, the stylists pricked it and seeds oozed out. Over time, the tails grew, developed, licked fingers, or playfully hissed.
The Neon Studios Salon didn’t exist inside of a mall, wedged between a movie theater and an arcade. To get to it, I borrowed my mother’s car (on the pretense of running errands) and drove it through wooded streets, just past the center of town, where all of the country clubs shared views of forest canopies in the summer. All kinds of women—important women—snuck off to the salon while their husbands played golf. They didn’t let their tails grow too long, and they modified the bob cut just a bit—enough to be stylish, but still acceptable in their social circles. I didn’t have to worry about any of that, and neither did my friends. We were young and had nothing to do with country club circles.
At the edge of a wooded street, stood a massive, Craftsman-style home, with white trim. From the outside, it didn’t look like much. It didn’t look like it could be the hub of modern style.
However, there was a sign, done up in soft purple, fluorescent lights that flashed “Neon Studios Salon,” but not in that creepy, motel-by-the-side-of-the-road way. More like a dream-sequence music video in pulses of desire and mystery. Inside, walls the color of deep eggplant gleamed in the light of crystal chandeliers, which hung from the ceiling. The air smelled of perfume and fruit-scented hairspray and shampoo. Mirrors shined, etched in gold. A stylist, Rochelle, who was blond with a violet, glitter-streaked tail that slapped the air behind her, took me to the shampooing station to begin my appointment. Already, I knew I was in excellent hands. I ignored what I thought were groans and shrieks coming from the walls, somewhat drowned out by the latest Top 40 hits blaring through the speakers, booming with synthesizer beats. I still heard the noises faintly and wondered if Rochelle heard them too. They sounded sorrowful, anxious, and if I looked close enough, I thought I saw the walls move. But it was clear that Rochelle didn’t want me looking at the walls. She’d turn my head in the sink whenever she caught me straining my neck. The ashen flakes that fell all around, though, were hard to ignore. They landed on the sleeves of the protective black cape Rochelle game me, and in Rochelle’s hair. Someone came by to sweep up the piles that accumulated on the floor, and I wondered if they were the remnants from the dead—the bones in the walls. I wondered if that’s what made this place so special.
In the main salon area, Rochelle worked quickly to chop off my shoulder-length locks, shaping my hair into a sharp bob with distinct stair-step layers in the back. Then, she took out a knife.
“Most people say it doesn’t really hurt,” she told me. “Sometimes it does, though. Just depends.”
I nodded my head. She opened a drawer at her station and showed me the gems I could choose. They all looked impossibly beautiful, but I eventually settled on a diamond-shaped, green glittered gem.
“Don’t move,” she said, “and uncross your legs. Otherwise, your body will be uneven and so will your cut.”
After injecting the back of my neck with a topical numbing agent, Rochelle made the first cut, which felt like fire, searing and burning, despite the numbing solution, but I refused to scream or cry—or jump. Why would I? Pain was a part of the deal. I’d be entering the world changed, and everyone would notice, especially the boys.
“There. All done,” Rochelle said, before pricking the diamond gel pack, letting the seeds run smooth and warm down my neck. She then massaged the area to work the seeds in and told me not to wash my hair for 24 hours at least. I left the salon with everything my babysitting earnings could get me, which included a 20-ounce bottle of lavender jasmine shampoo (specially formulated to help tails grow), matching conditioner, mousse, and hairspray.
At first, my mother didn’t notice. The nub that formed on my neck was my secret, and I’d gently rub it, just to make sure it was still there. Within a few weeks, though, the seedlings started to sprout, growing like ruffles on lace collars, trailing down my neck, weaving themselves into one sturdy strand of brilliant garden green, speckled with light. Never mind that when I went to the beach that year, I wore a skimpy bathing suit, much too revealing for a girl my age. Never mind that I blossomed and spilled out of the spaces strategically cut into the bathing suit. It was the tail that enraged my mother the most.
“Oh, you’re getting attention all right. The wrong kind of attention. And everyone’s talking about you—all of the neighbors—all of my friends. I’m so embarrassed.”
While I was somewhat ashamed because of what my mom said, I just couldn’t stop myself. I’d look in the mirror, pull the lovely strand across my shoulder and over my neck and admire the way the glint of green picked up lighter shades in my eyes. It hissed happily, darting between my fingers, and I just couldn’t imagine how I’d look without it.
The solution to my problem, I believed, was silence. I shut my mother out. We stopped talking. I stayed longer after school, went over to my friends’ houses more often—my friends who all had tails, just like I did. Besides, a tail didn’t mean you had to do anything with a boy. You just could if you wanted to, at least, that’s what I thought until my friend Jodi mentioned the walls at the Neon Studios Salon. I remembered the rumors but hadn’t thought about them for a while. Despite what I had experienced when I got my hair cut, I brushed the sounds and the ashes off as nothing. To me, the rumors had to be entirely untrue.
“Oh, no!” Jodi told me one day at her house. “If you get a tail, you have to follow through or else. The bones in the walls are from virgins—other girls who got tails but didn’t follow through.”
“Yeah, you know?”
“Have you . . . followed through before?”
“Yeah. It’s no big deal. But if you don’t, well, the walls know. They whisper their secrets to the owners of the salon. They find you in the middle of the night—or in the middle of the day.”
“That’s not true.”
“Remember Betsy Mulligan?”
“She didn’t. Her tail grew in, but she didn’t follow through. Think about it. When’s the last time you saw Betsy Mulligan?”
“We were eating ice cream at the mall. And then, I don’t remember what happened next. I guess her parents picked her up or something.”
“No. She was snatched up off the street. Her virgin bones were ground to powder and stuffed inside the walls. The sacrifices of virgins—not the shampoos and gels and seeds—make the tails grow.”
Jodi’s news was alarming, and I half considered cutting the tail off to maybe break the spell, if it could be broken that way, but I couldn’t. I loved it—the whole look. I couldn’t imagine going out in public with out it. I’d be so plain with just a naked stair-step bob. I’d be nothing special.
But I couldn’t let myself get sacrificed, either, if the rumors were true. As much as I hated my mother, I didn’t want her to grieve the loss of a daughter. So I followed through, with the first boy I met a party. We spent fifteen minutes in a closet together. For me, the experience was underwhelming, but necessary. He wanted another date, said he thought we bonded, reached for my hair, but the tail pulled away. In fact, the tail lasted longer than the boy, and I left the party with my life intact, but wondering if anyone would notice. Would anyone, such as my mother, be able to tell that I followed through?
Eventually, there were signs. The green strand grew long, sassy, and started to hiss. Apparently, you’re not supposed to let it get too long. You had to get it trimmed, but I liked the length. My mother, on the other hand, believed the length was a new source of embarrassment.
“It looks awful. Even your friends haven’t grown their tails to the length you have. Why do you insist on just destroying yourself?” Then, she yanked the front of my hair, turning my face towards her, and asked, “Have you had sex? Tell me now. I’m not leaving you alone until you tell me.”
My mother’s threats were never empty. Her rage knew no boundaries. If I left the room, she’d follow me, and there were no locks on the doors in our house. Those were the rules.
“Yes! So what? At least I had the decency to not get sacrificed to the salon. So there, Mom. You happy? Happy, Mom?”
My mother put her head in her hands and mumbled something about how she’d be able to take care of a pregnant daughter.
“No, Mom,” I said. “I’m not pregnant. We were careful.”
“So will there be more—boys? Times?”
For the first time in a long while, I saw a smile on her face. Her shoulders began to shake as she laughed. A big, powerful, triumphant laugh that rang out through the streets. I’d just said the funniest thing she’d ever heard.
She never spoke badly about the tail again. In fact, she let me grow it out longer, and later, when Dad left us, she went to the Neon Studios Salon and got one too—in blazing red.
“I don’t think so. It wasn’t that great.”
From then on, every afternoon during the rest of my high school years, we’d sit on the front porch. Mom would pour me a glass of champagne, and we’d watch the cars go by, our shimmering tails, hissing and snapping at the air.
Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here: (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/). Twitter: @ckennedyhola