1. Part the hair into two sections. This is easiest with a brush or comb.
The brush is behind a silver garage door that when lifted reveals another foot of space occupied by a basin and a shelf. On the shelf with her brush are the clothes she wore in two days ago when she was admitted. Now she wears hospital-issued, olive-toned pajamas that look itchy.
She sees me eye the wall. “It’s OK, the nurse can raise it. She won’t mind if you tell her we just want the brush.”
I hesitate, wondering what the point of braiding even is. No one will see it, except the nurses, the other patients, her parents when they return from their important meeting. And me, her assigned mentor, until then.
“Really,” Jovie says, “it’s OK.” Jovie says she was a great patient all night. She didn’t fuss when the boy next door spent the midnight hour banging his head against his wall. Jovie was indeed sleeping, curled under a thin blanket, when I’d arrived that morning. The sparse room held only the firm bed, the silver wall, a single chair, and tiny Jovie. The starkness and her visible bones startled me.
A nurse sits beyond the room’s glass door with tired eyes. I go out and ask if we can retrieve something from behind the wall. She stands, begrudgingly, and flips a switch we can’t see. The silver wall lifts with a cranking mechanical noise. I grab the small white brush with squat bristles from the shelf. The nurse watches from the doorway and hits a button to close the door as soon as I have it in my hands. The loud bang when it hits the floor seems like a taunt.
2. Once sectioned, tie one side with an elastic and then pull the remaining section taut. Close to the forehead, separate hair into three even sections.
I brush through her hair, glossy and straight and a little greasy. She complained earlier that the shampoo there sucks, and she has no conditioner. She’s hoping when she goes to the mental health facility, she can bring her own products. “The last time I was there, they let me bring makeup, some shampoo, some lotion,” she says. She sounds chipper, excited even.
There’s no telling when that transfer will happen. All her parents were told is beds are full, and she must wait at the hospital for one to open. They pass to me only the bare minimum of what’s going on. I have to pull information from them, bit by bit, one anxious text after another. I know they’re overwhelmed but wish they’d tell me more. I’ve been her mentor for six years.
I fumble to part neat sections of hair. Without sisters, I grew up practicing braids only on myself. The angles are different when it’s someone else’s head. I hope she doesn’t sense my awkwardness.
“Tighter,” she says. “I can tell it’s messy.”
“Your hair is slippery,” I say. I lean my elbows on her emaciated shoulders.
“Ow,” she jerks away. “That hurts.”
3. Take the left section and cross it over the center, then repeat with the right. Repeat this pattern, each time grabbing another small section of hair, moving down from the temples. Transfer sections from one hand to the other carefully, with reverence.
The YouTube instructor doesn’t say that last part, but I sense it. Here, fly-aways sprout from the braid, and one section is lopsided, larger than the others. I wonder if her mother is better at this. Probably so, but she’s asked me.
“When do your parents return?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Hey, what’s your phone number? I want to memorize it.”
I speak the digits, which she repeats, incorrectly, swapping two. I correct her, and she tries again.
“How will you call me?” I start back at the top on the next braid.
“They let us make calls, most days, if we’re following the program.” She reaches up to feel my work with her hand and makes a little hmmm of disapproval. “Did you get this as tight as you can?”
“Probably not. This isn’t my forte.”
4. The different parts should now be woven together into a whole. Use the elastic to hold the braid together. If you tie tightly, it won’t come apart, even with a vigorous shake of the head, even if she stumbles and falls. Tie tight, and all will be well.
I’m rushing now. I hurry through the second side. When I’m done, I imagine I will turn her around to look at her, face-to-face. Maybe a little eye contact is what she needs. She needs something more than braids, but she doesn’t know what. How could she? She’s only 16. I don’t know either. I guess maybe if someone who cares for her, someone like me, looked deep into her sad eyes, they could communicate something wordlessly into her soul, something good and grace-filled. How she deserves more than this. How she should go home. Maybe that would free her from this path she’s on.
But when I finish, I don’t spin her around. I tie the second elastic. She feels the braids, running her hands, specked with chipped blue nail polish and parallel scars marking her wrists, up and down the two sides.
“They’re not even,” she sighs. I’m about to suggest they look fine, everything is fine, she is fine, for she is young and beautiful, she doesn’t even know yet what power that holds, but she will soon, if she can just stop this, if she can just eat breakfast and not throw it up.
I start to speak when she dismantles the braids with two quick flicks of the wrist. She ruffles her hair, sits on the bed, lets the elastics fall, and smiles. Outside, the nurse moves past our door, and I hear her sigh.
“It’s OK,” Jovie says. “You tried, didn’t you?”
Krista Jahnke's short fiction has appeared in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, The Northwest Review, Peatsmoke Journal and Bright Flash. She works and lives in metro Detroit. Find her on Twitter @kristajahnke