Part 4, Revelation, continued from Welcome to the Institute
I woke to the sounds of a few muffled sobs. I looked over at Steph sitting on her bed trying to pull a comb through her very knotted red hair. A sharp fragrance of anxiety came from her direction.
“Hey, want a hand with that?” I asked as I sat up.
“I think it’s a lost cause,” Steph said sadly, “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Hang on, I’ll help.” I said as I got out of bed, realized I was still wearing yesterday’s clothing, and pushed my own very tangled hair back from my face. “Jenny got me a bunch of special combs and brushes that are supposed to be extra good at untangling.”
I grabbed them and went to sit behind Steph on her bed. Steph put down the comb she’d been using, and just sat while I started working on the back with a wide tooth comb that had curved teeth. I was just about out of patience with the project, when Liz came by. I used to be so much more patient.
“How was last night?” Liz asked, in that warm ever so slightly maternal tone that made my heart melt.
“My hair’s pretty bad this morning.” Steph said. “Can you…?”
“I’ll take care of it.” Liz answered, I guess she knew what Steph was going to ask, “You’re ok with…?”
“It’s only triggering me a little, it has to be done, and she’s very gentle.” Steph answered Liz’s unfinished question. The smell of anxiety was beginning to dissipate.
“Ok. Since we’ll be going into town, don’t forget to shower.” Liz said, then she looked more pointedly at me. “And how did you do, Diana?”
“I’ll have my hair untangled as soon as I finish Steph’s.” I said with renewed determination.
“I was thinking about if you were able to get out enough of the restlessness to skip the valium last night.” Liz smiled at me.
“Oh, I totally forgot about the valium.” I paused and thought about it, I was still a little on edge, but better than I had been yesterday morning after a night of taking the valium to help me stay inside. “It was much better to be able to just get exercise and fresh air. Thank you.”
“Good, there’ll be more fresh air and exercise tonight.” Then Liz said as she turned to move on, “just let Steph know if you need anything or have any questions.”
“Ok” I called after Liz as I finished detangling Steph’s hair.
Detangling my hair took a while. Mostly because it was bad, but also because I had to keep taking breaks to eat or run around. I finally managed though and went to shower.
After the shower, I sat in one of the lawn chairs next to Steph as I braided my hair to try to keep it from retangling. Steph watched with a complicated combination of wistfulness and doubt.
“Ready to head to town?” Liz asked Steph.
“Yeah, let’s get this over with.” Steph said as she stood. “I’ll go grab my stuff.”
“Diana, I’m sorry to drag you along, but I don’t want you to be alone here without Steph or me if you need help. It’s just going to be a little while. Go with Steph and grab anything you need; purse, sweater, phone?” Liz told me.
“I don’t mind tagging along,” I said, even though I knew I should mind it since it meant being trapped in a car for an unknown length of time. The prospect of getting to spend a whole lot of time around Liz somehow made up for it.
At the car, Steph claimed the backseat, saying she needed the space, so I got to ride shotgun next to Liz. I was glad to have an excuse to be so close to Liz, just breathing her scent. Once we were past the noisy unpaved private road, Liz started the conversation.
“Diana, if you’ve changed your mind, and want to get your hair a little shorter so that it will be easier to get out the tangles over the next few days, this is your last opportunity. There won’t be any more trips into town for a while, since tomorrow the retreat really kicks into gear.” Liz said as though I needed to be warned. “If the cost is what’s holding you back, don’t worry about that, I’ll take care of it.”
“Thanks for offering, but I’m good.” I said trying to stay polite even though I was sick of it being pushed. “It was a little difficult this morning, but I managed, and if I keep it braided for the rest of the retreat, it shouldn’t get bad again.”
“If you change your mind, just let me know before we leave town. You may find it difficult to keep your hair braided the whole time.” Then Liz asked towards the back seat. “Have you decided what you want to do with yours Steph?”
“I looked through pictures while Diana was in the shower. I found something cute. It’s pretty simple, shorter than what I had.” Steph said flatly, even though she looked sad and the smell of anxiety was rolling off her. “Different though, which was a lot of what I wanted when I thought about growing it out, a change.”
“Are you making her get a haircut?” I accused Liz.
“I’m not making her, I’m just helping her get one.” Liz responded calmly to the accusation.
“It’s obvious she doesn’t want one.” I pointed out as anger filled me.
“It’s very nice of you to come to her defence, but you don’t fully understand the situation.” Liz said, giving off an authoritative vibe that I couldn’t quite explain.
I was suddenly growling.
“Don’t growl at me puppy.” Liz said in the amused tone an adult uses when disinvited to a birthday party by a small child.
“Diana, it’s ok.” Steph interjected from the backseat. “Having matted hair, having the mats touched by someone, triggers more flashbacks than going to a comfortable salon to have my not tangled hair done in a style I chose, even if it isn’t the style I … would choose if things were different.”
“I’m sorry,” I apologized, feeling like shit.
“It’s ok. You didn’t know. I appreciate the loyalty.” Steph said, then added with a chuckle, “I can’t believe you growled at Liz.”
“Did I trigger a flashback when I started combing your hair this morning?” I asked, wondering if I needed to apologize more.
“Not really, I’d have had a much more serious one if I walked into a salon with mats.” Steph explained somberly. “It was helpful.”
After 20 minutes of driving past nothing but trees, we finally started passing houses. A few had small unmanned farmstands in front of them offering eggs or vegetables. Then we finally came to what passed for town.
A pizza parlor and deli under one roof. A tiny post office. A chinese/asian fusion restaurant. An old fashioned barbershop. A hardware store. A rather twee grocery. A dress shop and a camping supply store. An ice cream parlor that had a sign saying it was closed for the season. A coffee shop with a yoga studio above it. A very old stone church with a cemetary. And of course, most relevant to our outing, a surprisingly upscale looking salon.
As we walked into the salon, Liz gave every outward indication of being calm and relaxed. My nose told me it was an act though, I could smell the anxiety. Well if I could trust my nose. Jenny thought I was imagining it. Dr Stewart thought I had suddenly developed an unusual form of synthesia, which I supposed was pretty much a fancy way of saying I was imagining it, but with the implication that there was a neurological cause.
Steph’s stronger smell of anxiety matched her outward expression. She hung back, with a slight frown and shadowed eyes. Her arms hung heavily at her sides, one hand awkwardly alternating between scratching her fingertips with her thumbnail and scratching the tip of her thumb with her fingernails. Every now and then she’d ball it into a fist instead.
“Hello Danny.” Liz announced our presence in the small salon that only had two stylist chairs.
“Hang on, I’ll be there in just a minute.” a voice, presumably Danny’s called from the back. “Just putting on a load of laundry.”
“Let’s go sit down girls,” Liz said gently guiding us towards the small cluster of seating.
Steph took the armchair, sitting stiffly in it with her eyes closed and biting her fingernails. That left the couch for me and Liz to share. I sat first, off to one side so as not to crowd Liz, but she sat pretty close to me anyway, which was comforting.
“Pick up a magazine, or play with your phone or something so that you look more relaxed.” Liz whispered in my ear. “Danny can’t smell the anxiety on you or I, so we can try to look calm.”
“Jenny says smelling people’s emotions is just something I’m imagining.” I whisper back as I open up CandyCrush.
“You aren’t ready to understand, but I promise I will explain it before you leave at the end of the week.” Liz said, stroking my back. “Just try to not talk about it with anyone who isn’t attending the retreat. They’re even less ready to understand.”
“Hi Liz.” A guy in his mid-thirties said cheerfully as he walked forward from a door at the back of the salon. “So, who’s Stephanie, and who’s Diana?”
I gave Liz a suspicious side eye, since it sounded like she’d made an appointment that included me. Liz ignored my side eye, and got up to give Danny a hug.
“This is Stephanie over here.” Liz said, guiding Danny to face Steph. “Stephanie is the one who actually planned to get a haircut, so take her first. Diana, is really just tagging along, and I thought she might feel like doing something once she saw what a magician you are.”
“Ok. As I said when we talked on the phone, I have the whole afternoon free, so you didn’t need to be sure if you only needed one or two appointments.” Danny said to Liz before he turned offering a hand to shake to Steph.
Steph stiffly stood, took the hand, and smiled unconvincingly. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“It’s good to meet you too.” Danny said warmly and started to walk towards one of the two styling chairs with Steph. “You have amazing hair. What were you thinking of doing with it?”
“I have some pictures on my phone.” Steph said as she sat down and started showing Danny.
“That should be perfect with your texture.” Danny enthused as he started pulling Steph’s hair up. “And the shape is good for your bone structure. I think I want to make this angle here a little sharper than in the picture, because your ears are a different shape. Also I’m thinking of not squaring off the back but tapering it all the way down instead, since your neckline is a lovely shape. Ok? I’d like to start this dry, then wash and style it after I do the main cut.”
I kept looking up and sneaking glances as I barely played the game on my phone. I noticed Liz was also keeping a close eye on what was going on. She still smelled of anxiety, and was giving off a sort of protective vibe.
Though our view was slightly obscured by the reception desk, we could see what I thought was important, from Steph’s bust up. I watched as Danny enveloped Steph’s petite frame in a satiny zebra striped cape, and started sectioning her hair.
Danny was done sectioning off the hair on the crown of Steph’s head, and ready to start cutting. He used his comb to lift up hair from the back of Steph’s head and sliced it against the scissors.
Shlick, shlick, shlick
I was surprised I could hear it from so far away, as I watched Danny shake the red curls from his comb to fall to the floor where they made just a whisper of a sound. He swiftly scooped up more locks from around her ear into his comb and sliced at them. It looked like he was going to be cropping the hair at the back and sides of her head pretty short, maybe an inch or so.
I got a little tense, when some of the hair landed on Steph’s shoulder, and slid forward and onto her lap. She didn’t seem to react though, just continued to sit there in stillness as she was shorn.
As I watched the soft corkscrews of hair removed from her, leaving behind the short auburn pelt, I felt unsure about which I had thought looked better. On the one hand, the bounty of red curls were amazing. On the other hand though, they had been a Danny worked around Steph’s head quite swiftly, the scissors clicking and slicing away, till the hair was all evenly reduced.
He paused, and walked over to the shelf in front of his mirror and seemed to be opening a drawer I couldn’t see. I looked away, down to my barely begun round of CandyCrush. I made a couple of moves. I vaguely registered a pop sound, then was suddenly up on my feet growling.
“DANNY DON’T” Liz said firmly, then added in a whisper to me “settle down puppy, I have this.”
It took me a moment to register the stimuli and figure out what had made me growl. Danny was holding buzzing clippers, and the stench of pure panic was coming off of Steph. I could hear Steph’s heart pounding so hard. Liz was up and striding towards the styling chair that Steph had gone from sitting up in to leaning forward in with her elbows on her knees and her head hanging down.
“Give us some room Danny,” Liz calmly commanded, “and don’t leave those where Steph has to look at them.”
Danny didn’t need to be told twice, he came over to the waiting area, while Liz squatted down in front of Steph and took her hands. Liz spent several moments just gently stroking Steph’s arms.
“I’m here, it’s going to be ok…Let’s try to slow down the breathing… Deeper less shallow breaths… It’s going to be ok…” Liz whispered very softly, her face right up next to Steph’s.
“What do you think they are saying?” Danny asked me, a slight stench of fear sweat coming off him.
Why was he asking me to speculate? Couldn’t he hear them? Is it weird that I can hear them? It is, isn’t it?!
“Your guess is as good as mine.” I said, avoiding admitting that I didn’t need to guess.
“Do you know what happened?” He asked me.
I bit my lip. I didn’t want to tell Steph’s story without her consent, but he needed to know something, so I aimed for vague with my answer. “Stephanie is very sensitive to certain sounds, like clippers.”
“Oh god,” Danny let out softly as he went even paler, and the smell of fear sweat increased. “Liz said no clippers or trimmers when she called this morning, and I forgot.”
I sighed as I watched Liz continue to help calm Steph, stroking her and talking softly asking how she was doing. I could hear Steph’s heart begin to calm, the smell of pure panic finally dissipating very slightly.
“Do you want to finish this now or just get going?” Liz asked softly, as she stroked the short hairs on the back of Steph’s head. “For halfway through a haircut, this isn’t bad looking. Let down the top and it should just look like a grown out undercut bob. It’s a fair amount less to get tangled already.”
I peered over the desk to look down at the pile of scattered red curls on the floor, curious as to how much less there was to get tangled. It was a pretty impressive pile.
“I’m up to finishing, as long as he doesn’t…..” Steph paused, closed her eyes and took a deep ragged breath. “I’ve already suffered the hard part, it’d be nice if I at least got a cute new look out of having gone through this.”
“Do you want me to stay here, or go back to sit with Diana?”
“You can go sit with Diana. She’s probably really confused, and a bit shaken herself.”
“If Diana changes her mind and is ready to get a haircut too, are you up for waiting here or going for a walk, or do we need to head straight back to the Institute?”
“I could manage, but I’m pretty sure the question is moot.” Steph looked at me, knowing I could hear her even if Danny couldn’t. “She isn’t ready to accept the inevitable yet. Go sit with her, I’m ok now.”
Liz got up and gave Steph’s hands a final squeeze. She returned to the waiting area, where Danny was anxiously standing next to me.
“Danny, can you finish it with no clippers?” Liz asked directly.
“Pretty much. It’s going to be a little bit of a softer, less sharp look if I do it with just scissors, but a lot of people like that. But I can’t carve in the shaved lines on the side so easily. I’m sure it’s probably technically possible, but I’ve never and I don’t want to experiment on her.” Danny explained nervously. “I can make it look good, but not exactly like the picture. It’s going to be a little slower, too.”
“Ok, just tell her exactly what you’re doing each step of the way, and don’t surprise her.” Liz instructed. “And put that away.”
Danny nodded and walked back to the salon chair where Steph was sitting. He slowly, carefully, and obviously opened the drawer and very pointedly put the clippers back into the drawer.
“Ok, we won’t be taking those out again.” Danny promised then started talking to Steph about doing a slightly less sharp version of the cut.
“Why do you and Steph think it’s inevitable that I’m going to agree to a haircut? I mean it was a bit tangled after running around last night, but I worked it out. And I put it in a braid so it won’t happen again tonight.” I asked Liz in a hushed but annoyed tone. “I mean it’s not like it’s going to get as tangled as before. I got knocked out in Central Park that time, it’s not like that will happen again.”
Liz looked at me with a slightly pursed expression and a warm just slightly sad scent. “What if it did? Not the part about getting knocked out in the park. What if something was going to happen pretty regularly that was going to tangle it extraordinarily badly?”
“I don’t understand.”
Liz just sighed and said, “I know.”
Liz shifted her focus back over to Steph, even as she pressed her arm against me. I looked over and watched as Steph and Danny finished up their conversation and Danny went back over to the shelf and retrieved his comb and scissors.
Danny very gently tilted Steph’s head down and began to comb her hair upward. As the comb’s teeth entered her hair, he started to snip right against the comb. Sprinkles of red hair fell down onto Steph’s caped shoulders as I heard her heart rate increase ever so slightly.
After a slightly slow start, I could see Danny was finding his rhythm and started cutting much faster. The silver blades flashed open and shut as they followed the comb up and down the back of Steph’s head. The hair falling steadily on her neck, back and shoulders.
He then started doing something similar along the side of her head, the comb simply going up and down then back and forth as the hair was cut by his scissors. This time some fell over the front of Steph’s shoulder, and into her lap.
“Can I use the hairdryer to blow away some of the loose hair?” Danny asked cautiously, “Or is the noise going to be a problem.”
“Just warn me each time you use it.” Steph said in a stoic tone.
Danny took the hairdryer from his counter, and pointed it at Steph’s neck and shoulders, said “here it comes” and turned it on. Under the roar of the machine, I could hear Steph’s heart beat pick up just slightly. The air stirred the little clipping into the air where they started to fall like copper glitter.
“Ok, done for now.” Danny promised.
Danny came back with his scissors again, and placed the blades right against the skin of Steph’s neck and started snipping with the tips at little hairs too fine to see from the waiting area. He brushed at her neck briefly with his finger tips, then snipped at it with the tips of his scissors some more. He snipped all along her hairline in the back, then started to snip around her ears.
It was indeed a pretty slow task, and I could imagine how much faster the buzzing machine would have been at it. He had to snip hundreds of times to accomplish what he could have with a single swipe of the clippers. He didn’t seem to be impatient with the task though. A bit nervous, but not impatient.
Danny finally got to the front of Steph’s ears and snipped the area into a natural rounded shape. He then walked to the side of her, and started combing the short hairs against her face. He snipped the hairs there along her hair line, resting the blades of his scissors on her cheek. Then repeated the process on the other side.
“Just another quick blast with the hairdryer,” Danny warned Steph as he picked it back up and pointed it at her. “Ready?”
Once all the loose copper snippets had been blown away, Danny released the hair he’d secured to Stephs head earlier. The twist of hair fell loose into a riot of curls. Danny fluffed and scrunched them, rustling them up then seeing where they fell.
Once he was satisfied with how the curls were arranged, Danny began to snip them short. He lifted the soft corkscrews up individually, obviously being careful not to stretch them out, and cut off much of the length. The copper spring shaped locks falling to Steph’s shoulder where they bounced or rolled, unlike straight hair that would have plopped and slid.
This was going to take a while, I sighed and leaned into Liz, her warmth feeling so good against my arm. Then I stiffened up, when I realized the way it was making me feel was not a good idea when I had Jenny waiting for me at home.
So, I just kept watching as Danny cut the bouncy locks short one by one. At the back, he was cutting them, so that they pretty much just stayed up against Steph’s oval head, but as he worked forward, he was gradually leaving them longer and longer. By the time he got all the way to the front, the curls hung down to Steph’s auburn eyebrows, highlighting her soulful brown eyes.
“Ok, let’s go back to the sinks and get you washed so I can style it,” Danny said cheerfully as he gave Steph’s shoulders a squeeze.
“Do you have something unscented?” Steph asked.
“Do you really need unscented, or would lightly scented do?” Danny asked, sounding disappointed. “If a light scent would be ok, I have this really great treatment that is specifically formulated for curls.”
“I’m sorry, it’s really got to be unscented.”
“I guess I’ll use what I use for Liz,” Danny agreed reluctantly, then turned his head and raised his voice to ask Liz. “Liz, why is it that whenever you bring a friend here, they insist on unscented?”
“The Institute is a fragrance free space to accommodate our guests with allergies.” Liz stated, but something about the way she smelled told me it was a lie.
When Danny and Steph were in the back at the sink with the water running, I softly asked Liz, “Why did you lie about the fragrances?”
“What makes you think I lied?” Liz countered.
It was obviously a deflection, but it was also a damned good question. I stewed on it the entire time Danny washed and styled Steph’s hair, just giving it a few more little snips here and there.
Finally Danny held up a mirror with a flourish to show Steph the back of her head, with a “voila!” and a smile.
Steph’s face that had been smiling as she admired the front fell. Her hand raised to the nape of her neck.
“Oh god, why did I pick something so short.” Her voice broke a little as I could tell she was holding back tears.
Liz was immediately up and going to comfort Steph. I got up and followed more slowly, not sure if there was something I could do. I hung back next to the reception desk, looking at the red coils, little C shapes, and dust that used to be the locks that had hung nealy to Steph’s shoulders.
“You don’t like how it looks?” Danny asked, sounding so disappointed. “Is there something I can do to make it more like what you wanted?”
“No, it’s adorable and almost exactly what I wanted,” Steph stated as she lost the battle to hold back the tears. “It looks really nice.”
“I’m confused.” Danny said, “Did I do something wrong? What can I do to make this better?”
Liz was squatting down surrounded by the wreckage of Steph’s hair in front of Steph again, rubbing her arms and making a gentle soothing “shhhhh, shhhhh,” sound. Liz let out a deep sigh and looked up towards Danny.
“I’m sorry, I should have explained better on the phone this morning.” Liz began slowly and deliberately, obviously trying to choose her words very carefully. “Some of the PTSD that I mentioned you would have to be gentle about and avoid triggering noises, surrounds an event that happened when Steph was a child. She was in a hospital and they shaved her head for a medical procedure. The nurse and hospital barber were very rough with her. So, even though she likes how this haircut looks on her, she’s having a flashback.”
Liz looked at Steph’s still obviously shaken face, and wiped at a couple of tears. “Can you guys just give us a few minutes?”
“Sure” I said, slowly turning to go back to the waiting area.
“If I’m giving you a haircut too, we could head back to the sink now so I could wash your hair.” Danny suggested.
“Well,’ I said, my mouth suddenly feeling very dry. “I don’t know if I really need a haircut. I like the length and style it is now, my girlfriend cut it just around 3 weeks ago. Liz just suggested a haircut may help because it’s been a little hard to comb out.”
“I’m assuming your girlfriend isn’t a professional hairdresser?” Danny asked. “Her scissors probably weren’t all that sharp, let me do a little deep conditioning treatment, and take off just a dusting, it will be the same style and almost the same length, but easier to comb through. OK?”
I didn’t really want a haircut, and I was pretty sure it hadn’t been what Liz had in mind when she offered to take care of it if I got one, but when I looked at Liz she looked at me with pleading eyes and said “Please just distract him,” in less than a whisper.
“Do you have an unscented conditioning treatment?” I asked as I reluctantly headed to the back with Danny, leaving Liz to have a little privacy while she took care of Steph.
“I have stuff that should work.” Danny said, sounding a little exasperated as he grabbed a towel.
So after a half hour of laying back in the shampoo chair and letting Danny work concoctions, which he claimed were unscented but smelled really strong to me, into my hair, I found myself sitting in the chair that was still surrounded by red curls as Danny swung a leopard print cape over me.
In the background, I could hear Liz still comforting Steph up in the waiting area.
Danny combed through my hair, that was already mostly untangled from him working the conditioners through it, and then twisted most of it up leaving just a thin bit down in the back. I felt him comb through that section a couple of times, then he positioned the comb at what felt pretty close to where Jenny had evened it out to and started snipping.
Shnip, shnip, shnip.
Then Danny released more hair, and repeated the process. Once he’d cut a little bit off each section of hair he released, Danny combed up the layers and began trimming away at them. Little chunks of dark wet hair fell, mostly on the floor, but occasionally on my shoulders and lap also.
I sat there looking at the mirror and listening to all the snipping. He seemed to be taking off an inch or so from everything. Under normal circumstances, an inch would be a pretty normal amount for me to get trimmed off, but this was my second hair cut in less than a month, which meant it was more than my hair had gotten a chance to grow since my last cut. Plus my last cut had already been shorter than I had wanted.
As I watched the slightly longer than curtain bang length layers in the front turn into actual curtain bangs, I felt silly about being upset. This trim was nothing compared to the shearing Steph had just submitted to any way you measured it. Plus, it might help with the whole convincing Nancy in HR I’m well enough to return to work thing. Especially if this actually worked and made my hair more manageable.
“Do I need to warn you every time I start the hair dryer?” Danny asked, obviously still a little over cautious after Steph.
I relaxed a bit for the styling, it had been ages since I’d gotten a good blow out. Of course after that he wanted to lighten up some of the layers more, so I got to watch pretty long dry chestnut strands fall.
By the time he took off the cape and showed me the back, it was almost a wolf cut. It admittedly looked good, even if I would have rather just gone back to very long with subtle layering.
“It looks really nice.” I praised Danny, “And hopefully, it will be a lot easier for me to take care of. Thank you so much.”
Leaving was just a little awkward, with Danny and Steph competing for who could apologize more profusely, and be more gracious in their acceptance of the apology. At the end of it, Liz gave Danny a hug that he looked like he needed.
We walked around town for a bit to burn off some energy before we were going to be trapped in the car on the way home. We got burgers at the coffee shop, I’d just given up on my vegetarianism. Then we were ready to head back to the Institute.
On the drive, Steph requested I sit next to her in the back. She was asleep on my shoulder in just minutes. I must have drifted off shortly after Steph, because I was awakened by the sound of gravel under the tires.
After parking, Liz ever so gently lifted Steph up out of the car, as though she were a small child, and not a fully grown adult. Liz carried Steph into the lodge, up the stairs and laid her gently on the bed, as I followed with our purses.
“I have to go check on a group from Quebec that arrived late. Then see that dinner preparations are going well,” Liz said with regret as she very lightly stroked down Steph’s back. “I had arranged for you and Steph to buddy up with the intent that Steph would be available for you if you needed her, since it’s your first time here and everything, but now I’m going to ask you to please keep an eye on her and be here if she needs you, tonight. Please stay with her. She’ll wake up around sunset, and then you can go out and jog together.”
“Of course, no problem,” I said. “If she doesn’t wake up, I’ll stay in and just take some valium.”
“Please don’t take the valium.” Liz instructed in a slightly worried tone. “If she doesn’t wake up by the time it gets dark…. Don’t worry, she’ll wake up.”
Liz had been right, Steph woke up, and said she felt much better. We spent the night running, eating, briefly napping, then running some more. I expected there to be organized groups sessions or something where we talked about our feelings during the next day of the retreat, but it was just a day filled with hiking, eating and napping. Then more serious running in the woods that night under the nearly full moon.
The day after that, the restlessness was even more intense. The day before, I had managed to keep my hair braided, but suddenly I couldn’t. I had a hard time finding something comfortable to wear, even though everything I packed fell into what I normally categorized as comfortable. I noticed that most of the others were wearing extremely light loose clothing too. Everyone seemed a little extra on edge, a little extra restless.
“Diana, I want you to accompany Steph and I on a hike to the other side of the lake.” Liz requested as she joined us at lunch. “Take a little nap when we’re done with lunch, and we’ll leave around 2. There’s a little cabin over there, where we can have a little extra privacy. When we get there, I have an extremely loose lightweight robe you will be much more comfortable in. And, I’d like you to try a little self reflection exercise that I find helpful.”
“So, kind of a therapy thing?” I asked.
“Just a suggestion from a friend. As Steph told you, this isn’t a medical facility, and none of us are licensed therapists,” Liz stated. “Though Steph is working on a Phd, part time online, so maybe she will be one day. If I was your therapist, we’d need to deal with that crush you seem to have for me.”
I felt my cheeks flush red and muttered, “I have a girlfriend.”
“Yes. Well, please bring your phone with you to the cabin ok.” After Liz said it, she turned to Steph. “Are you over the shock of the haircut?”
“I’m getting there,” Steph said, raising her hand to the back of her head. “I love everything about it except the way it makes me think about the hospital. Right here at the nape where it’s especially short it feels a bit like the stubble did. Though the length is more like what it was after I’d been here for a few weeks and it had started to grow back.”
The hike around the lake was pleasant. The robe Liz gave me when we got there felt almost like wearing nothing at all. It was a little before sunset, when Liz suggested I start the exercise.
“I want you to record yourself on video talking about everything you remember from the night that you were attacked by the animal.” Liz said, spreading out a couple of blankets on the lawn in front of the cabin. “Prop you phone up with a couple of rocks or something, just make sure you have a good angle so you can see your whole body when you rewatch the video later. You take this blanket to sit on, and Steph and I will sit on the other.”
I did as instructed, feeling a little self conscious….
I woke up naked curled up with Steph spooning me. She was also naked. We both seemed to be resting our heads on Liz’s belly. Liz also seemed to be naked. I sat up and looked around, hugging myself to cover up. Liz and Steph also seemed to be waking up.
“What happened, how did we get here?” I asked, feeling panic setting in.
“What do you remember?” Liz asked calmly.
“Nothing!” Then I accused, “did you drug me?”
“No, of course not.” Liz kept her voice calm. “Try harder to remember.”
A whimper escaped me, “I can’t, it doesn’t make sense.”
“Say it even though it doesn’t make sense, what do you remember?”
“Just pain and crazy dreams.” I admitted.
“Go on,” Liz encouraged. “What were the crazy dreams?”
“Running through the woods with animals. Chasing a deer.” Then I closed my eyes at the worst part. “Killing a deer and eating it. Curling up surrounded by warm furry animals. Smelling safety.”
Then something really really strange struck me, and I looked at Liz. “Smelling you. You smell like safety. What happened?”
“You won’t understand if I just tell you. The cabin is about 50 yards that way,” Liz stated, pointing through the woods to where I could see it faintly. “You were recording what happened last night, remember the video. Your phone should be where you left it, go take a look.”
I got up and started picking my way carefully through the underbrush towards the cabin. Liz and Steph followed at a slight distance, both obviously fairly comfortable with their nudity.
I walked around to the front of the cabin, my phone was indeed where I had left it propped up. I picked up my phone with shaking hands. I found the video of myself I had been recording right around sunset. I had to spend a moment just calming myself before I hit play on the video.
I watched myself as I chatted, Liz and Steph sitting in the background just relaxing. I watched myself saying things I remembered reasonably clearly, so I skipped ahead occasionally, I finally got to the last bit I had clear memories of, I paused it, took a deep breath, and hit play again.
“Oow, hey guys, I just got this really sharp pain in my ribs.”
“It’s ok,” Liz said in an eerily calm tone. “That’s normal.”
She was getting up, and started taking off her sweater. Next to her Steph had also gotten up and had begun undressing.
“It hurts less if you stand up.” Steph said.
“What’s happening? Why are you taking off your clothes?” I sounded a bit panicky on the video. “Ooooo, now the pain is in my hips.”
“It really is not as bad if you stand up,” Liz said.
Strangely, though she was saying *stand* she was beginning to arch forward reaching towards the ground with her hands. Steph was already down on all fours, completely naked.
I watched as the video showed me looking frightened, watching them. I obviously was too scared or too uncomfortable to listen to what they were telling me, because I kept sitting there.
“Oh god! What’s happening to me? I feel like everything is stretching.” I cried out as my body twisted from sitting into a ball.
“Everything is stretching out, it’s better if you can relax into it.” Steph said through panting breaths.
“You’ll be more comfortable without the clothing binding you.” Liz said through slightly more controlled deep breaths.
I’m not sure if I was trying to do what they suggested, or just following some instinct, but I uncurled my body and was clawing at the fabric of my robe. I wasn’t so much taking it off as tearing it away.
As I watched I noticed that the hands clawing at the fabric, seemed to be distorting. My neatly manicured short fingernails were beginning to look more like claws. In the background Liz and Steph were distorting too. Stretching, their faces elongating.
I watched the video horrified and confused, as all three of us changed.
Then there were three wolves. One where Liz had been, large, powerful and dark with white fur speckling her muzzle. Where Steph had been, the wolf was a russet wolf with a coat the color of an irish setter but unquestionably wolf shape. Where I had been was a smaller light brown wolf, only slightly russet around the ruff.
My wolf was still clawing at the bits of torn fabric on me. Liz’s wolf came over and began to nuzzle me.
I stopped the video.
To be continued…