“Ow! You’re pulling too hard!”
Nandini reached up to touch the back of her head, giving her sister a reproachful glare. Kavya just smiled, gently prying away her fingers and running the comb through Nandini’s hair again, this time considerably slower. Nandini gritted her teeth as the comb struggled to fight through the tangles, finally gliding to the bottom of her hair with a rough sweep. She felt a light pull as Kavya parted her hair and began taming it into a thick braid, humming softly to herself.
“There we go,” Kavya said. “The worst of it is over.”
For twelve-year-old Nandini Varma, her hair was her greatest treasure. Nandini never considered herself to be extraordinarily smart or charismatic, but if there was one thing she could pride herself in it was the hair on her head. Layers of dark glossy strands bounced over her shoulders, coiling delicately to frame her face and tapering off below her chin. Nandini and Kavya had spent years caring for their hair with moisturizing oils, deep conditioners, and a multiple-hour wash routine, and it had taken Nandini just as many years to begin appreciating the beauty of what she was given. Her thick black curls had once been rough and frizzy, a subject of great mockery. The words thrown at her so long ago sometimes whispered at the back of her mind, reminding her the consequences of losing what she had worked so hard to perfect.
A group of elementary school girls crowded around the bathroom mirror, fawning over the tall blond girl standing in the middle. The girl tossed her hair over her shoulder and flashed a confident smile towards her admirers.
“Wow, your hair always looks amazing, Rachel!” one girl cooed. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“I know. Yours is okay but it’s definitely not as great as mine,” Rachel agreed.
The girl nodded, her smile shrinking slightly. Another girl behind her put a hand on her shoulder.
“Hey, don’t feel bad. At least your hair isn’t the worst in the school. Have you seen Nandini’s?”
Nandini’s eyes widened as she crouched lower in the bathroom stall, hoping none of the girls would hear her. She had run off to eat lunch where none of them could bother her, but it felt like they somehow always managed to find her regardless.
“Oh hers is awful,” the other girl responded in a low voice. “It’s so frizzy and curly. Every time I see it, I want to just pull it off her head.”
Rachel’s mouth morphed into a smirk and a chill ran down Nandini’s body. She turned around, her gaze landing directly on the stall Nandini was in.
“Why not try it?” Rachel said, her voice sickly sweet. “Right, Nandini?”
The stall door was kicked open as Rachel stepped inside. Nandini backed up against the wall to try and hide, but to no avail.
“Please,” Nandini begged softly. “Don’t do this.”
Rachel ignored her pleas, grabbing a fistful of Nandini’s hair and running it between her fingers. Her eyes narrowed and when they met Nandini’s, there was nothing in them but raw hatred. Before Nandini could react, Rachel pulled hard, a sharp pain radiating across Nandini’s skull. A loud tearing sound could be heard throughout the bathroom, followed by the laughs of all the girls.
“It almost looks better, don’t you think?” Rachel said, dropping the lock of Nandini’s hair to the ground. “Come on, girls, lunch is almost over.”
Hot tears flowed down Nandini’s face as she was left alone in the bathroom, only kept company by the awful throbbing of her head. Before she knew it, she was running as far as her feet would take her, no thought except to escape this hell she was trapped in. She ran with Rachel’s harsh words chasing at her heels. She ran until her school was nothing but a tiny spot in the distance. She ran until she saw somewhere she knew she could be safe.
Nandini ran into the field behind the middle school where her sister was outside for recess. She slammed her back against the school’s wall and shrunk down, hiccupping quietly to mask her sobs. A shadow fell over her as a person stepped closer and blocked out the sun.
“Nandini?” Kavya’s voice asked. A gentle hand brushed against the throbbing part of her scalp. “Who did this?”
Nandini stared at her sister kneeling in front of her, swiping at her tears. “Rachel.”
A dark look passed over Kavya’s eyes and she hoisted Nandini up, putting an arm around her shoulder. “Don’t you dare listen to a word that horrible girl says. Let’s go home. We can fix this, don’t worry.”
“What about school?”
"Forget about it. Mom will tell them something.”
The pain seemed to fade slightly as Kavya’s warm arms wrapped around her. Nandini fell in step with her sister, wishing for a day in the future where she could hold her chin up high, just like Kavya was doing for her.
Such events had tapered off once Nandini started middle school. Years of meticulous hair care routines had brought life back into what Nandini had felt ashamed of and her hair was now met with eyes of envy, even from girls such as Rachel.
Nandini had long since stopped caring what others thought of her hair. She loved it and that was what mattered. Yet even the greatest of things could use some work and there was still someone’s hair she wanted it to become like one day. She briefly craned behind her, glimpsing the luxurious waves that cascaded down her sister’s back. “I wish my hair was more like yours. It’s so beautiful and long.”
Kavya laughed, the sound filling Nandini with such delight she almost forgot about the memory from before. “In time. Just let it grow, put oil in it like I did today, and before you know it your hair will be even longer than mine.”
“I like it better when you put the oil in my hair,” Nandini said. The thought of having to care for her hair alone made the cozy warmth of the room seem to recede, replaced by a sort of lonely coldness.
She handed Kavya the hair tie and watched as she finished the braid, giving Nandini a playful tug after tying it. She wrapped her arms around Nandini and placed her chin on her shoulder, meeting her eyes in the mirror.
“I’ll always be here to do it for you, then,” Kavya promised. “Don’t you worry.”
Nandini leaned over her math homework, tapping her pencil to her chin as she tried to recall how to factor trinomials. A sudden chill rushed through her despite the afternoon sunlight pouring through the window and she shivered, pulling her sweater around her tighter. Had Kavya forgotten to turn on the heat again? Shrugging the thought away, she turned back to her assignment, but not before feeling a warm liquid run down her face, tickling the bottom of her nose. Nandini lifted her hand, only to have it return with bright red blood staining her fingertips. Her heart quickened and she bounded up the stairs, racing to the bathroom.
“What’s wrong?” Kavya called from downstairs, as she heard the commotion above. She began climbing up the stairs and met her sister in the bathroom. The blood had begun to stream down her face and a metallic taste entered her mouth. Instinctively, she tilted her head back to ensure no blood would fall and stain her clothes. Kavya pulled tissues from the tissue box and handed them to Nandini.
“Apply pressure,” she said, and Nandini pressed the tissues to her nose and squeezed, grateful when the blood began to cease flowing. Of course, Nandini was getting used to the routine by now. The sixth nosebleed in a week. And they were not quick, minor nosebleeds, stopped with one tissue, but heavy, long, drawn-out affairs. Kavya wetted a wad of toilet paper and began mopping the rusty blood from Nandini’s face. Her eyes widened as she touched Nandini’s skin and she brought another hand up to her forehead. “You’re burning up.”
Nandini shivered again, leaning against the bathroom wall as a sense of exhaustion filled her. She watched as Kavya stepped out of the room and returned with her phone, dialing their mother’s number. Long shifts and working two jobs had meant Nandini’s mom was rarely to be seen at home, often leaving seventeen-year-old Kavya to do much of the work around the house. Nandini tried to help where she could, but there were some things she didn’t know how to do even if she wished she did. After a few moments, Kavya shut off the phone and turned to Nandini.
“I’m taking you to the doctor’s,” she said. “Between your fever and nosebleeds, mom and I are getting worried.”
Nandini’s heart started speeding up again, her breath becoming shallow. “Is something wrong with me?”
Kavya shook her head. “Hopefully, it’s nothing major, but we want to make sure.” Her expression fell as she watched Nandini continuing to shiver, gripping the tissues pressed against her nose. “Come here,” Kavya said, holding out her arms.
She pulled Nandini into a warm hug before gently turning her around and running her fingers through her hair. Nandini felt her racing heart begin to slow as Kavya braided her hair into the intricate 5-strand braid she always did to calm her down. As the final strands were pulled back, the trickling from her nose stopped and Nandini placed the tissue on the counter. She grabbed another coat from her room and followed Kavya out the bathroom door.
The drive to the doctor’s office felt impossibly long. A tense silence seemed to fill the car. Nandini tried to look out the window and watch the leafless trees near the road fly by, but it was difficult with Kavya’s constant worried looks.
Ever since they were little, Kavya had been the one for Nandini to run to. When she’d had an awful nightmare that would make her heart race and force her awake in a cold sweat, Kavya was always immediately by her side, holding Nandini’s hands until the darkness faded away. When their mom and dad had screamed at the top of their lungs, words of hatred echoing through the house until a slammed door and cold silence was all that was left, Kavya had told her stories of a land far away where the sun shone and everyone smiled. When Nandini had come home from school, her face stained with tear tracks and choked words spilling out faster than she could stop them, Kavya was the one to reassure her that, no, her hair wasn’t ugly and, no, her friends didn’t know what they were talking about.
But never once had Nandini seen such a worried look on Kavya’s face. The car came to a screeching halt and Nandini glanced out the window to see a familiar red building. She grabbed a handful of tissues in case the bleeding started again and followed Kavya through the wooden doors, taking a seat on a worn old chair. The harsh fluorescent lights of the office seemed to bear down on her and she settled for closing her eyes while Kavya spoke with the receptionist.
“Dr. Stevenson will see you now,” a voice spoke from the inner doorway. Nandini rose to her feet as Kavya placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, and made her way down the long hallway into another white-lit room.
They waited, Nandini fiddling with the tissues in her pocket and Kavya tapping her foot on the cold linoleum floor. A young dark-haired doctor finally stepped through the door, greeting Nandini and Kavya with a small smile. Nandini sat quietly as Kavya told him about her symptoms, speaking only briefly about what she remembered from the past week.
“The nosebleeds might just be because of the dry air. As for the fever and tiredness, a viral infection has been going around, so maybe you caught something from school?” Dr. Stevenson asked. Nandini shrugged. Her friend had been sick in science class, so it was possible. She told Dr. Stevenson just as so and he noted it down. “I do want to rule out any other possibilities. I’ve written up a lab slip for your blood test, Nandini, just to make sure.”
Nandini nodded as Kavya accepted the small slip of paper from the doctor’s hand. If both the doctor and Kavya said it was probably nothing, she had nothing to worry about, right? Everything would be okay.
Everything was not okay. Nandini had been called into the doctor’s office again, this time accompanied by Kavya and her mother. The doctor had spoken on the phone about coming in as soon as possible. Fear began welling up inside Nandini again and she swallowed thickly as the doctor stepped into the room.
Dr. Stevenson’s usually playful expression had sobered and when he smiled politely, it didn’t quite reach his eyes. He placed the lab results down on the desk, out of view, and sat down across from Nandini and her family.
“The test results came back,” he stated slowly, leaning forward and clasping his hands. “Nandini, we have a strong reason to believe you have acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It is a cancer of the blood.”
Nandini froze. She stared at the doctor, wondering if she had heard him correctly.
The doctor glanced at Nandini’s expression and then the horrified looks on her mother and sister’s faces. After a moment, he continued speaking, his voice solid and sympathetic.
“The survival rate is high, about 90%. The next steps would be a bone marrow biopsy to confirm the blood test results,” he said. He turned to Nandini’s mother and Kavya. “If the cancer is confirmed, we would want to start chemotherapy as soon as possible.”
Silent tears flowed down Nandini’s cheeks and she watched numbly as her mother asked the doctor more questions about the biopsy, her symptoms, the treatment. The words seemed to quiet around her and Nandini just sat, feeling like a stranger watching someone else’s life unfold. Only after a long car ride home and stepping into her room with Kavya behind her did the truth begin to sink in. She thought back to all the symptoms and the reassurances that had been offered to her, whipping around to face her sister.
“You said it was probably nothing!” Nandini screamed, red-hot anger blurring her vision. “You lied to me!”
Kavya's eyes widened. She stared for a moment, before bursting into tears. “I’m sorry,” she cried. “I didn’t know. How could I have known?”
She pulled Nandini into her arms, holding her shaking body tightly and running her fingers through her hair until the blazing anger had faded and all that was left was despair.
It had been three weeks since the blood test. A dully painful scar lay on the back of Nandini’s hip, a reminder of the diagnosis which had now been confirmed. Nandini spent her days at the hospital with pinching of needles and the smell of alcohol filling her waking hours. The cycle seemed endless and Nandini grew to hate those white fluorescent lights that judged her as she sat, yet again waiting to see what next steps the doctors would suggest.
Kavya was with her every step of the way, not leaving her side just as she had promised. She put on a supportive smile for Nandini every day, but Nandini could hear her quiet sobs from her room every night as she struggled to fall asleep. She hated the pain she was causing her sister and she wished there was some way to make it disappear.
That night, Nandini found herself standing outside Kavya’s door holding a bottle of oil and a small brown comb. She knocked softly and heard the sniffling stop as Kavya opened the door and greeted her with a smile.
“Can you do my hair?” Nandini asked.
Kavya nodded, swiping at her eyes and beckoning for Nandini to come inside the room. She brushed the oil into Nandini’s hair gently, far more gently than she had ever done before. Nandini leaned back and relished the feeling of her sister’s fingers running through the tangled strands, looking for some semblance of normalcy and comfort.
With a final tug of her braid, Kavya rested her hands on Nandini’s shoulders. “You should get to bed. I’m taking you to another doctor’s appointment tomorrow.”
Nandini’s heart sank at the thought of being in that cold, bright room again. She rose from the chair and stepped to the door, the warm calm of Kavya’s room quickly leaving her.
The next morning was spent at the hospital as usual. Nandini fiddled with her fingers as she sat in the white-lit room again, waiting to see what the doctors would suggest this time. A familiar blonde woman stepped through the door, smoothing down her white coat and jotting notes on her clipboard. The last time Nandini had seen this doctor, Dr. Miller, was the day they had confirmed the bone marrow biopsy. From what Nandini remembered, she seemed to lead the team of pediatric oncology fellows.
“Hi, Nandini, how are you doing today?” Dr. Miller asked sweetly.
“I’m alright, I guess.”
Dr. Miller smiled. “That’s good to hear. I know the hospital visits the past few weeks have been tiring, but we’re hoping these next treatments will help you not have to come here much longer. How does that sound?”
A small smile grew on Nandini’s face. “That sounds pretty nice.”
“The next steps are going to be difficult, but you’re a really brave girl,” Dr. Miller said. “We think it is a good time to start chemotherapy. It might hurt for a while but after that, the hope is you will be all better.”
“Doctor, are there any side effects?” Kavya asked.
The doctor nodded. “It varies from person to person, but some ones we commonly see are nausea, vomiting, and hair loss.”
Nandini’s eyes widened and she reached up to touch her hair, meticulously braided back by Kavya that morning. She glanced at the beautiful, long curls tucked behind her sister’s ears and then back at the braid clutched in her hand.
“Hair loss?” Nandini repeated.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Dr. Miller said. “I’m so very sorry, but chemotherapy is the best option to treat this type of cancer quickly.”
The lights bore down on Nandini again, reminding her of the gravity of the situation. She thought of all the nights she had spent with Kavya brushing her hair, hoping one day it could be as perfect as her sister’s. She thought of the thick curls always bound back in a loose braid. She thought of all that gone and walking around with a bald head.
Then she thought of herself dead.
“I understand,” Nandini said.
Nandini pulled her hair tie out of her hair, standing up in front of the toilet. She watched as a large, black clump fell to the ground and leaned down to pick it up, recoiling from the second wave of nausea that passed through her. As the dark strands joined their family at the base of the trash can, Nandini caught a glimpse of her reflection in the bathroom mirror, recoiling at what she saw. Thin wisps of hair were all that was left, hanging around patches of brown skin that reflected the bathroom light. Nandini stared at the reflection, an awful kind of horror filling her stomach, but somehow being unable to look away. Then it hit her.
This was not someone else standing in front of her. This was her.
This was what she looked like now.
The hair that she had painstakingly put years of effort into perfecting was gone. The one thing that made her beautiful, that made her worthwhile had disappeared and all she was left with was a pitiful memory of what she once had. Fear gripped Nandini as she was reminded of the mockery she had faced years ago. Would everyone hate her for how she looked again?
Nandini thought of the events of the past few months, thought of the countless nights her family had spent in tears behind closed doors. The hours Kavya had dedicated to driving her back and forth from appointments. The medical bills her mother had gripped tightly until her fingers turned white because, though she didn’t admit it, Nandini knew they couldn’t keep going on like this for long.
Nandini was worthless and now she was going to die and she was hurting her family and her friends were going to leave her and it was all her fault.
The thoughts poured in like crashing waves and Nandini found herself sliding down the bathroom wall, tears blurring her view. She squeezed her eyes shut and the image of her reflection burned behind them, pulling darker and darker memories with it. Harsh fluorescent lights bearing down on her. Pinches and pricks of needles. The sound of her mother’s sobs. Where had she heard those sounds before? When her dad had left. That too was her fault, wasn’t it? Nandini tried to remember the argument from that night. All she could remember was the echo of her name.
“Nandini! Nandini, please look at me.”
A warm hand wrapped around Nandini’s knees and the torrent of anxious thoughts slowed. Her mind stilled long enough for her to notice the trembling of her arms and frantic panting of her breath.
Kavya’s voice cut through the darkness. “Nandini, I want to you open your eyes. Can you do that for me?”
Nandini nodded. Or she tried to. She wasn’t sure if she actually succeeded.
Slowly, her hands still shaking, she reached up and swiped at her eyes, prying them open. Her knees were pulled tightly against her chest and her body felt heavy, like a sack of bricks she couldn’t move.
“Tell me three things you see,” Kavya said softly. “Take your time.”
Nandini scanned the room. Her pounding heart began to quiet and she managed to open her mouth, words coming out in shaky breaths.
“The toilet… the cabinets… the sink.”
Kavya rubbed Nandini’s knees softly until her breathing began to slow. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Nandini took in a deep breath before gasping out, “My hair. Do something, please.”
She felt herself being pulled up into a chair. The buzzing sound of a razor filled the room and Nandini stared as the remaining wisps of her hair left fell to the ground. The action was somehow comforting, reminiscent of late nights and hushed laughs with oil-filled hair.
The razor cut through the last strands and Nandini watched as Kavya placed it on the counter before reaching up and undoing the ponytail on her head. She pulled out scissors from the bathroom cabinet and grabbed a fistful of hair.
“What are you doing?!” Nandini cried out.
Kavya pursed her lips. “You always liked my hair, didn’t you? I’m showing you that you can be beautiful without it.”
Before Nandini could protest, the scissors clamped across a thick lock of hair. She watched, powerless to do anything, as her sister’s hair joined her own on the ground. Kavya didn’t hesitate once, her chin held high when her head had become bare.
“There we go,” Kavya said. “The worst of it is over.”
Nandini glanced at Kavya’s reflection and then back at her own. Something warm welled up inside her and before she knew it she had burst into laughter.
“You- you look like an egg!” Nandini said. A smile bloomed on Kavya’s face before giggles escaped her mouth. Peals of laughter filled the room and the weight on Nandini’s chest lightened considerably. It was ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous, and yet she couldn’t help herself.
When the two girls had calmed down, Nandini looked at her, and Kavya’s reflection truly looked, and something struck her. Despite the clear absence of glossy curls surrounding their faces, that beauty that had been there before remained. It was there in the kindness Kavya offered with every one of her actions. It was there in the courage Nandini had every day to go to school and ignore the pain that penetrated down to her very bones. It was there in the genuine smiles that lingered on their faces after something as silly as a joke about an egg.
Nandini straightened up and crossed her arms, feeling more confident than she had felt in a long time. For the first time in the past month, it felt like the world had hope for her after all.
Apurva Raghu is currently pursuing a BS in Biology at the University of Maryland and dreams of becoming a doctor one day. She loves to write and paint in her free time. Her hope is to use her writing to explore the intricacies of human relationships, and she draws inspiration from the world around her. Currently, she is trying to improve her craft through writing short stories and working on her first novel.