It’s been twenty-four years since she’s last seen it, but the place looks exactly the same. Chipping paint peeling back to reveal ugly concrete scars. Isla feels her bags weighing down her shoulders but none of that bothers her. In fact, it makes the experience more welcoming.
Through the window she spots Pia with a blurred face and thin arms. Now Pia’s hair is short and thick and white. Wrinkles on her flowery dress match the building almost exactly.
There are no blue-eyed customers waiting in the window, so Isla throws a clumsy foot in front of the other. And then she notices another girl by Pia’s side. One with eyes of the sun and cheeks that have drowned underwater. Isla wonders what type of fear that girl has. She takes a step back.
Her fear digs a finger into her back. She can hear its voice but sentences have scattered in her mind. Go.
She wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it, but Isla lived with it everyday. It took up the torn, frayed couch in the dusty living room with its legs dangling off the end. Around its waist there was a pink apron with a picture of silver scissors and the words “kiss the cutter.” The picture felt like plastic and greasy hair.
Sometimes it spoke. Whispering in her ear, its voice only a wisp of smoke but could tug her by the fingers from her daydream.
It also came to work with her. Isla’s home was first on the twisting streets but now she worked at a beauty salon. They let her braid the customer’s hair into crowns fit for royals or fish tails that wind around their head. The customers don’t ask questions, and neither does she.
On her lunch breaks she sat in the back room with Pia, the shop owner. Pia had long, brown, knotted hair that resembled the jagged side of a cliff as it ran past her shoulders. She talked slowly because old age got her tongue.
“I’ll tell you a secret if you braid my hair,” Pia overenunciated in Spanish.
Isla with her fear was the only other person who spoke Spanish in the beauty salon. They exchanged fumbling sentences, each untying their knowledge, day by day.
“That is a good deal,” she muttered, head inching to the side to see her fear in the corner of the room, eyes directed at her. It was playing with a plugged-in straightening iron, palms just avoiding being kissed with blisters.
Pia motioned with her thumb and Isla scooted behind her. She began, fingers twitching with pressure while it laughed and danced, tossing combs into the air.
“My secret, it’s that my real name is Píedad.” Pia tapped the wooden floor with her knuckles, waiting for a reply. She got nothing. “Do you have a secret you want to share?”
Isla frowned behind her and gulped. She weaved a plait before answering. “My name is Isla and my fear follows me around.”
Pia chuckled in her gruff tone, “Don’t we all have fears?”
After the break ended, Isla swept the curtains aside and returned to the shop. A blue-eyed customer waited at the cashier, blinking and touching the counter lightly as if it would break. Isla looked around the shop and noted that the other workers were busy. She’d have to take care of this one herself. Her fear traced her footsteps with a pale finger and sauntered through the room.
“Can I help you?” Isla asked, feeling a shiver ripple through her spine when it laid a hand on her shoulder.
The blue-eyed woman stared at Isla’s hair and smiled. “I would love a trim. And ma’am, you have beautiful hair.”
Isla said nothing, fingering her hair self-consciously, and led the woman to an available chair. It grinned hideously at the woman, but she could not see it. Isla fitted her fingers into the scissors and glanced at her silver reflection in them.
The metal grinded together when she cut the first strand of hair. It was a muted yellow and fluttered to the floor like winter leaves. Isla’s fear caught it in its hand and pinched the end. She tried to avoid its eyes but suddenly they were all around her.
The woman blinked her blue eyes and laughed softly. “Have you ever thought of donating that pretty hair of yours? I work for a company that does that. We’d be so grateful if you participated.”
Isla felt small when it rose in front of her arms out wide. It looped the scissors out of her grasp and dangled them in front of her. Cut it, cut it.
She dropped to the floor, hugging herself and pulling her toes. Isla’s eyes were glassy but not enough to cry. She rocked back and forth, back and forth. The woman called for nobody in particular.
The next day was when Isla noticed the first crack in the building. It was gray and rough and made her suck on her lower lip. Her fear dug its fingernail into it and pretended it didn't know about life and death.
Pia came up next to her, silent. “You know you are fired, right?”
“Right,” Isla breathed, tapping her forehead against the cracked wall. “I know.”
“Good,” Pia said, and headed into the back room.
The knob is creaky and that’s how she remembers it. The bell screams when she enters.
Pia’s head doesn’t move when Isla walks up behind her. She taps her shyly on the shoulder and when Pia whirled around Isla sees that she’s changed. Her lips are bigger and her ears are pierced and pale.
“Isla,” Pia says, almost as if in wonder. “You’ve returned.”
Isla smiles tightly. “Hello, Píedad.”
Pia’s mouth curves in the wrong direction for a second. She takes her hands and drags her into the back room. It’s hardly changed with the cargo boxes and ripped curtains.
“So, tell me.” Pia barks in Spanish, “Where were you?”
“Traveling,” Isla tries to dismiss it easily.
Pia nods absentmindedly, running her hand along Isla’s forearm. “I’m sorry to fire you like that. Money was low.” Isla shifts her gaze to the ceiling uncomfortably. “Did you ever get rid of that fear that followed you around?”
Isla looks up to see it brush the curtains away. Its eyes are still the same yellow after those years and its laugh is still sharp in her mind. “Of course. It left me years ago.”
She doesn’t know why she’s returned but she knows she has Pia back and that’s all that matters.