Libbie walked slowly into the house from her car. It wasn’t familiar to her. Her parents bought it two years ago. She thought it was her father’s way of distracting her mother from Libbie’s wedding.
“Hey, honey.” Her father greeted from the living room couch. “How was the drive?”
Libbie pulled off her hat and shook her hair out. “Fine, thanks dad.” She waited a moment after speaking. The man turned away from her, back to the laptop sitting on the coffee table in front of him. Libbie kept walking to the kitchen.
Her mother was stirring something on the stove. “Mom, I told you I would cook.” She protested softly, setting the groceries on the table and stepping up to give her mother a hug from behind.
“Thanks, sweetie.” Her mother said in response to the hug, not returning it. “I know, but you got here so late. I thought maybe you’d like a break instead.” The woman told her, stirring a pot of golden, cheddar grits on the stove.
Libbie sighed a little through the nose, but just thanked her and headed to the bathroom.
She picked up the hair dye and supplies from the brown paper bag and carried them with her.
There were ten main kingdoms that Libbie identified and named while she watched her mother work. In the back of the salon, Libbie would peek out periodically to see her mother dyeing hair. She would also wash, dry, style, and cut.
The dyeing appointments were Libbie’s favorites.
Louisa Bea “Libbie” Cottle came to the beauty salon her mother worked at every day after school. She would spend her afternoons there until her mother was let off work.
In her world, it was just her and her mom, really. Her father helped pay the bills, but he spent more time at work each day than he had with Libbie in the whole of her seventh year of life. He went on a lot of business trips and worked a lot of overtime. Libbie was proud he was a hard worker, her mother less so. The woman had never really known the man she married.
Four words: Baby out of wedlock. Her mother, Elizabeth “Beth” Cottle, had told Libbie the story hundreds of times.
One time, Libbie’s grandmother had told her that her mother ought to be ashamed, admitting to Libbie she hadn’t been planned. Libbie’s mom said she didn’t care what other people thought, she was grateful for her kid, no matter the circumstances. Libbie always knew how much her mom loved her.
See, her grandmother embodied the Kingdom of Gray. She was the Queen. The woman’s age had drained the color from her hair. Her wispy, gray bob had always accompanied the chill the woman brought into the room. Libbie saw the Kingdom of Gray as cold, sometimes cruel, like the color her fish had turned when they lost power for a week during her eighth winter and couldn’t figure out how to keep the North Dakota chill from seeping through the walls and frosting the ten-gallon tank.
Similarly, the Kingdom of Brown was a numb color to her. Her father’s hair was brown. She didn’t know much about him other than the feeling of instructed pride and vague, cloudy disappointment.
Every time Libbie tried to send an ambassador in from the Kingdom of Black, her and her mother’s hair color, they never came back.
So, Libbie hadn’t mapped all the kingdoms out yet, even by her twenty-seventh year. Brown was… sea monster territory, as far as she was concerned. Here be dragons: so, stay away.
The other colors were more fun to think about, anyway.
“Is that the Princess of Blue, again?” Libbie asked her mother, age eleven, watching as her mother picked out the right shade of dye from the back stock. The round, wobbly, wooden table where she did homework was shoved amongst the shelves and unpack boxes of supplies.
Her mother gave her a dubious look. “I don’t like you referring to her as a Princess. This girl isn’t a role model.” Her told her, before turning away. “Barely eighteen two months ago and already she’s giving her mother a heart attack.” Libbie’s mother muttered, reading the label of a nondescript tub of dye.
The Princess they were referring to had gotten a streak of blue put in her hair two months ago. She’d told Libbie about her plans to dye it all.
“Because of the hair dye?” Libbie asked, tapping her pencil on the long division homework she was ignoring.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.” Her mother dipped the ‘you’ in the southern drawl she’d picked up during her formative years in Georgia. She’d moved to South Dakota after marrying Libbie’s father.
Libbie hadn’t pushed the topic then. Several weeks later, she would find out more from the gossip that trickled down the public school system.
“Mom, why is it bad to be a lesbian?” Libbie asked, surprising the woman as she stepped in the back of the store for her afternoon break.
Her mother put her hands on her hips and towered over Libbie. “Where did you hear that word?” She demanded.
Libbie shrank back. “At school. Someone said the Princess of Blue was a lesbian, and her parents kicked her out of the house. Now she lives in her car.” Libbie told her, fidgeting with her fingers. “Why is it bad?” She asked, looking up at the woman with wide eyes as her mom pinched the bridge of her nose.
“It’s a sin. That’s why.” The woman snapped. “Now, I don’t want to hear another word out of you on the matter. Finish your homework!” Her mother’s accent was drawn out when she was angry. Each word was coated with the taste of Georgia.
So, the Kingdom of Blue was rebellious. Young and exciting, often electric and buzzing with life. Libbie was envious of blue hair, and those who were brave enough to wear it.
Green and Orange were extremely rare. The Kings and Queens of each kingdom shared a similar daring kindness. They always tipped her mom well for her expertise. People came from all over town for her skills, she was the best at dyeing hair for miles.
Purple and Pink represented giggles and loud high fives. The Kings of these two kingdoms were usually young people with something to prove. The Queens were varied in personality and age, but they always giggled when they saw the final product.
Yellow was populated by the blondes, mostly. There wasn’t much special about them other than that the King and Queen were both regulars, who knew Libbie by name.
She stopped waiting in the back of the store when she got to high school.
As Libbie grew up, she tested her mother’s boundaries slowly. She asked about her mother’s opinion on gay people when she was twelve and fourteen, each time resulting in an argument between the two of them. It always ended when her mother raised her voice, firmly and decisively, and told Libbie that the conversation was over.
Her mother stayed angry for about a week, both those times. Libbie didn’t ask a third.
When Libbie was 18, her mother had walked into her bedroom, with a college acceptance letter in her hand, and caught Libbie kissing her best friend. The woman hadn’t talked to her for a year after the fact.
By the time her mother reached out, Libbie had taken out loans for college, relying on her father’s credit score and monthly grocery checks.
They didn’t talk about it for three years. The conversation that needed to happen hid like stray hairs under the barber mat.
Sometime in her twenty-third year, her mother had brought it up out of nowhere.
“I just don’t understand why they need to have the rainbow.” Her mother said, standing in the middle of the mall and looking into a department store. The glass at the top of the wide entrance had a rainbow pride flag, advertising that year’s June apparel.
Libbie had been texting Heidi, her girlfriend, and wasn’t paying much attention to where they were walking until that comment. She looked up, peered at the sign, and raised an eyebrow.
Her mother wanted to bring this up now? Really? And of all things, she was complaining about the rainbow?
“Those are God’s colors.” Her mother huffed delicately, tucking a strand of recently cut hair behind her ear.
Libbie scrunched her face tight on instinct.
But then she remembered who she was dealing with. Her mother would pounce at even the smallest sign of disrespect. Their trip would be ruined, and her mother would blame Libbie.
“I don’t know why anyone would need to restrict something like that as their own.” She said as diplomatically as her heightened heartbeat would allow.
Her mother scrunched her nose but kept walking.
She was twenty-seven.
Her mother’s hair was graying, like the late Queen of Gray herself. Libbie was visiting her parents to pick up some things for her wife’s baby shower. Heidi wanted some of their childhood toys to put on display.
Over the phone, Libbie’s mother had asked her to pick up some supplies to help her dye her hair back to black. Libbie agreed. She’d stuffed the dye and foil and gloves in the paper bag, on top of the chicken, veggies, and cream she’d brought to make dinner.
So, now, she was standing in the bathroom, with a belly full of cheddar grits and roasted shrimp. Her hands moved subtly through her mother’s hair. The woman sat on the wooden chair in front of the large bathroom mirror. She watched everything Libbie did with the eyes of an expert.
Libbie pinned segments up, idly chatting about the recent weather and how work was.
Her mother wasn’t going to bring it up. Neither was Libbie. She had learned to keep her mouth shut over the years, and she wasn’t going to be breaking that habit now.
In the end, it was her father who poked his head into the bathroom. His own hair was peppered, Libbie thought it looked good on him.
Her father just watched them for a minute. The conversation between Libbie and her mother died off. Both of them waited for whatever the man to name whatever he had come it for.
“The baby shower is next weekend, right?” He prompted after a few beats of silence. “Are you going to invite us?”
He was invited. She’d sent him the invitation over text. It was her mother who really wanted the answer to that question.
The woman tensed. They were waiting for the dye to set, tin foil pressed over strands of her hair and making her head look like a roof layered with shiny shingles.
Libbie swallowed thickly. She was leaning against the wall, facing the mirror now too. “Heidi and I made it very clear. If you weren’t at the wedding, you don’t get to come to the baby shower.” She spoke carefully, not wanting to spend the night in a frozen house, if she got to spend the night at all, after this. “And you weren’t at the wedding.” Libbie told her mother in a whisper, strained and slow.
Libbie could see the image of her mother’s eyes widen with distress in the mirror.
No. The woman didn’t get to do this to Libbie. She didn’t get to guilt her into submission.
They met eyes with each other’s reflection. “But it’s my grandkid!” Her mother objected.
Libbie’s egg, Heidi’s wombs. For context.
“You don’t get to pick and choose when to love me.” Libbie told her firmly. She had practiced that line before in her own bathroom mirror. She had repeated it, aiming to keep a straight, stern face.
But now the mirror above the sink only reflected the image of a subdued child. Libbie walked up to the sink and turned her back on the likeness of herself, facing her mother instead.
The silence grew between the two of them, stretching on past a minute into two until her father spoke up.
“Your mother and I have always loved you.” He interjected.
Her anger flooded out onto him all at once.
“Paying for me is child support, not love.” Libbie snapped her head up to look at the man. She stomped around her mother and ushered him out of the bathroom. He wasn’t the parent she’d really wanted at the wedding.
She’d wanted her mother.
“Why are you being so cruel?” Her mother demanded, standing up from the chair now.
Libbie shook her head. “Forget it, mom. It’s time to take those out.” She sighed, gesturing to her mother’s head. “Then I’ll get out of your hair.”
The words registered to her a second later, and she couldn’t stop the smile from invading her face. Her mother cupped a hand over her mouth.
The woman snorted. Libbie’s chest shook with laughter that wouldn’t be repressed.
She started laughing, and her mother followed her. It didn’t last very long, just a quick shared minute of stupid humor, but it eased the pressure on Libbie’s throat.
“We used to laugh all the time, Libbie.” Her mother sighed the words out, a wistful smile on her face. “Especially over that silly little thing you used to say, about kingdoms and hair colors. Gosh, me and the girls at the salon loved that. I loved listening to you be so excited about something.” Her mother blinked at her.
The smile dripped from her face into a well-defined frown.
It used to just be Libbie and her mother against the world. Their own kingdom of two.
“Are you ever going to change your mind about us?” Libbie asked softly.
Her mother narrowed her eyes. “God forgives sinners. I can too.”
Libbie took a sharp breath in, holding it to stop herself from saying something she’d regret.
“I need to apologize to dad.” Libbie let the words fall passively out of her mouth. She turned and opened the bathroom door, only to find her father had been sitting with his back against it.
She was mildly surprised. The man had never seemed to care enough to stick around for longer than a few minutes at a time.
“Sorry, honey.” He started to stand up and groaned. Libbie helped him the rest of the way. “Shouldn’t have been eavesdropping.” He admitted, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Libbie shook her head.
“It’s fine.” She said, mostly because she’d never thought he would care enough to eavesdrop, either.
He looked over Libbie’s shoulder, at her mother. “God forgives sinners. I can too.” He repeated the words, holding onto Libbie’s shoulder with a firm grip. She tensed. “That’s what your mother said, when we got pregnant with Libbie.” He said thoughtfully.
His hand let go of her shoulder. She turned to glance at her mother. The woman didn’t react.
The three of them stood silently for a moment. Libbie broke it, apologizing softly to her father for snapping.
He reached up and tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, telling her it was alright.
The man walked away, leaving the two of them there. Silently, Libbie returned to her mother’s side. Neither of them said a word as Libbie took out the foil, gently washing out the black dye.
Gray. Blue. Orange. Green. Purple. Pink. Yellow. Red. Black. Brown.
Heidi’s hair was dyed red when they met.
She was everything to Libbie. Everything and more.
In Libbie’s childhood, the Queen of Red had been an older woman who only came to their salon once. She’d spotted an eight-year-old Libbie peeking out at her and gestured for her to come over.
Her features were sharp. She had a bit of stubble on her chin. Libbie wanted to touch the new, vibrant red. The woman had let her.
“Do you like it?” She asked.
Libbie nodded, eyes wide with routine awe. The woman laughed and held up a lock to Libbie’s head.
“I think it would look good on you too.” She told her, smiling kindly.
“Libbie!” Her mother snapped, stepping over from the cash register as soon as she noticed them. “Stopped bothering the customer.” The woman spoke with a strained voice, ushering Libbie into the back.
She never saw that woman again, but she remembered her. And her smile.
“We said she couldn’t come.” Heidi complained over the phone. Libbie shivered on the porch, holding one arm over her stomach.
The sun was a little over halfway through its journey through the sky.
“I can’t be like her. She hated her mother– my grandmother.” Libbie tried to explain, her breath turning to fog in front of her.
Heidi groaned, and Libbie could picture the woman’s beautiful hazel eyes rolling.
“You hated your grandmother, too.” Heidi pointed out. “It’s not a big deal, I’m sure it will be fine if she comes. But you don’t owe your mother anything.”
Libbie knew she was right. But it wasn’t about that. Owing. Being owed.
She just wanted her mother.
“She’s an idiot.” Libbie stated. “Maybe one day she’ll realize that. But I’m not having it on either of our consciences.”
Heidi sighed. “Alright, Bea. Bring me back some bagels?” She asked, lilting her tone up sweetly. Libbie laughed, agreeing amiably.
“I love you.” Libbie told her.
“Love you, too.”
She hung up and turned around to face front door, sobering.
It really wasn’t about owing her anything. Libbie didn’t know if there was any way to repair their relationships, any of them. She would always see the absence in her father’s eyes. He would always see resentment in hers.
Her mother would never be able to bleach out her words from Libbie’s memory.
And Libbie might never change the woman’s mind.
But Libbie didn’t want that. She’d never wanted that, really. Wounds were wounds, even if they heal, they still happened.
Or maybe that was wrong? The cold was biting at her skin, distracting her. Her thoughts circled around and around the point of forgiveness and healing. Maybe right now, it was all too confusing. Maybe it would keep being confusing.
But it didn’t matter, really. Monarchies weren’t capable of characterizing an entire color. There were some childish expectations she needed to let go of.
And others she needed to hold onto.
She pushed the door open, rubbing her hands together to warm them. “Mom, Dad!” Libbie called out. “I’m going to pick up some bagels for Heidi before I drive back. Do you want any?”
Madeline Vickers is an undergraduate at Virginia Commonwealth University. Madeline writes as a hobby and as a passion. She is a nonbinary and bisexual and one goal of her writing is to describe and advocate for the expansion of lgbtq+ literature. Her career goals are to become a physician and a published author. Madeline has been published in her high school literary journal, but other than that she is only beginning to put my work out for consideration.