For any other 12-year-old, summer vacation is supposed to be a time of fun and the occasional mischievous deed. Those are the months the youth look forward to all year long as they drag themselves to and from school. Never mind the sweltering Virginia heat. The sun’s rays bouncing off the cracked pavement surrounding Marquis Square Apartment Homes did little to keep the kids from the neighborhood at bay. For days, exclaims of jubilation and tennis shoes slamming on the ground as they ran in the streets were all anyone heard from sun up to sun down.
However, Shiloh was not one of those kids.
She sat on the edge of the curb in front of the tiny apartment she shared with her mother. She fidgeted and did her best to get comfortable on the hot asphalt without burning her bare legs. Not that it mattered. Shiloh’s thick curly hair covered her ears, neck, and part of her back. Everywhere her hair touched felt damp with sweat. She couldn’t take it anymore. With a few hard yanks and a hair tie stretched to its limits, Shiloh managed to pull her heavy curls into a high ponytail. Immediately, she felt a river of moisture flow down her neck and saturate the top of her tank. Finally, some relief.
Shiloh cut her eyes to her front door. She had been debating whether or not to beg her mother to let her back in, but she couldn’t find the bravery to do so.
“You need to get up out this house,” her mother had said to Shiloh’s dismay. “You’ve been cooped up in here for days. Why don’t you take your ball to the playground around the corner? Go find a friend and play. Get dirty. Be a kid.”
Outside was the last place Shiloh wanted to be.
With a heavy sigh, Shiloh weighed her options. Going back inside wasn’t one of them. Mama wouldn’t have that, not after her insistence that Shiloh plays outdoors. She wished she had a cell phone. She could easily find a quiet spot under some shade and play games on it. All she had with her was her old basketball. It had seen better days, but it was full of air and made the most delightful twang as it bounced. Deep down, Shiloh would prefer to play basketball in the neighborhood park, but if she left her front step, she might run into Missy.
Missy. Just thinking of her name gave Shiloh a chill up her spine.
“Hurry up!” a voice called out. “C’mon! We can’t miss it!”
Shiloh whipped her head toward the direction of the voices, which were quickly followed by the thunderous pat, pat, pat of a group of kids running down the street toward her. Shiloh barely got to register who the kids were before they passed by her, running fast enough to leave a muggy breeze in their wake. The two black girls in the group trailed behind the boys. One had relaxed hair bouncing around her shoulders, and the other had thin brown braids cascading down her back. Shiloh’s eyes immediately locked on their girls’ flowing tresses.
She touched her hair and grimaced. Not only was it almost sticky with sweat, but it also frizzed up. She knew her ponytail was more of a huge black poof sitting on top of her head, but there was nothing she could do about it.
Shiloh sighed again. “C’mon, Shi,” she muttered. “You can’t sit here forever. Maybe she won’t be there. Might be safe to go.”
With one more look at her apartment door, Shiloh grabbed her ball and headed to the park.
Shiloh made her way down toward the park with her basketball tucked under her arm. She could still hear kids running and yelling, but no sounds came from the direction of Marquis Square’s only playground. However, as she rounded the corner, Shiloh froze. Her heart began to beat with such a force that she felt her pulse in ears.
She had hoped the park would be empty, but it wasn’t. Sitting silently on the park’s lone bench was Missy and three other girls. Shiloh didn’t know their names, but she knew Missy’s well.
Missy was the person Shiloh hated the most. A leggy eighth grader with a pale complexion lightly kissed by the sun, Missy was gorgeous. As much as Shiloh hated to admit it, she wished she looked like her. Even frozen with fear, she had to admire Missy’s short, wavy brown hair. It hung a little limp just past her ears and softly fluttered in the warm breeze. It wasn’t stiff and tightly coiled like Shiloh’s.
Every time Missy laid eyes on Shiloh, she teased her about her big hair. Shiloh didn’t want this to be the start of another incident that made her want to shut herself away from the world. Thankfully, Missy and her friends were deeply engrossed in whatever she was showing them on her cell phone.
Shiloh finally found the strength to move. She took a step back and pivoted on her heel, quickly turning around as she prayed she remained unnoticed.
“Oh, look. The nasty mop head has finally shown her face outside.”
Shiloh cringed. So much for remaining unnoticed.
Shiloh kept her back to the girls, but Missy’s voice still called out to her.
“With her hair like that, she looks like a dirty Q-tip!”
Shiloh closed her eyes as the sounds of the girls laughing at Missy’s cruel joke rang in her ears. She felt the sting of tears behind her shut eyes, but she also felt her face flush with anger. With a deep, shuddering breath, she held back her tears and turned to face Missy.
“Stop calling me that, Missy. My mama says there ain’t nothing wrong with my hair.”
Missy scoffed. “Well, my mom pays good money every week to make sure our hair looks good.” Shiloh noticed a little flush in her enemy’s cheeks as she took a step toward her. “My mom would never let me come outside with all that nappy hair.”
“My hair ain’t nappy!” Shiloh shouted. “It’s just curly like those girls on Instagram with natural hair. My mama don’t have to spend money on relaxers or weaves. She says it looks good without it.”
“Well, ya mama lied,” said one of Missy’s friends.
“That’s right,” Missy said. “Besides, natural is just another word for nappy.” Missy and her friends bellowed with laughter.
Near tears again, Shiloh began to silently curse her mother for not allowing her to straighten her curls. Not one of the girls in front of her had tightly coiled tresses; they either had braids or chemically straightened hair, including Missy. Deep down, Shiloh knew this was her mother’s fault. She was the one who made Shiloh look different from the other girls in the neighborhood.
“Oh, are you about to cry?” Missy drawled. “Boo hoo! The dirty Q-Tip is sad.”
Shiloh hitched her breath and looked Missy in her gray eyes. “I’m not sad. I’m mad. Stop calling my hair nappy. It’s not!”
Missy crossed her arms over her chest and smirked.
“Okay, then. If it ain’t nappy, run your fingers through it.”
Shiloh froze. She knew that her hair was already tangled from the heat and sweat. She looked at each of the girls as they waited to see what she would do.
With a shaky hand, Shiloh reached up to her poofy ponytail and closed her eyes. She felt her fingers sink into the wiry, still damp coils immediately, yet when she tried to run her fingers through, nothing happened.
She couldn’t do it.
Missy and her friends doubled over in laughter. The sound of their pleasure was enough to finally make a tear fall from Shiloh’s eye. It left a cool trail over her still flushed cheeks before it dripped off her chin.
With a quick swipe of her hand, Shiloh wiped the tear trail away and gave Missy a deadly stare.
“I’d rather look like a dirty Q-Tip than a wet dog!” she yelled.
Missy stopped laughing as her mouth dropped open as the other girls gasped. For a split second, Shiloh was proud for having stood up to herself.
Missy balled her hands into fists and stalked toward Shiloh.
“What did you say to me?”
Oh no, Shiloh thought. Oh well. Too late to back down now.
“I said,” Shiloh began with a slight tremble, “I’d rather be a dirty Q-Tip than a wet dog.”
Without a second more to think, Shiloh dropped her ball and took off running.
Rounding the corner going back toward her home, Shiloh heard the girls chasing her. She chanced a glance back and saw them nearly on her heels. The shock of the Missy and her gang so close caused Shiloh to stumble, and she fell into the dirt. She barely had time to catch her breath from the fall before she felt the weight of Missy on her back.
“What are y’all standing there for?” Missy yelled. Shiloh tried her best to twist her body, but she couldn’t get Missy to budge. “This little stuck up Q-Tip thinks she’s better than us! Oh, we’re gonna teach you today! Y’all help me get this weave out her hair!”
Shiloh felt hands pulling on her hair from the roots. She screamed in pain, but mostly she screamed in fear. Teasing she was used to. This was different. This was action. Her first fight.
“Missy, I ain’t doing that. That’s too much,” one of the girls said.
Missy sucked her teeth. “Whatever! Y’all wanna leave, then leave. I’ll teach her myself.” Shiloh felt the weight lift off her as Missy leaned to the side. Shiloh lifted her head and saw Missy grab two fistfuls of dirt. Next thing she knew, her face was pushed into the dirt again as Missy rubbed the soil into her hair.
“No one cares about your hair! It’s ugly anyway!” Missy yelled.
Shiloh hitched a breath and yelled back. “Get off me!”
A few seconds later, Missy moved and Shiloh scrambled to her feet. The other girls were gone. She stood in front of a panting Missy. Shiloh could only imagine how she must have looked, but she didn’t care. Her head was hurting and her pride was more wounded than it ever had been before.
After a few seconds of staring each other down, Missy’s shoulders slumped a bit, but her face remained stern. She didn’t quite look Shiloh in her face, but her eyes kept flittering up as though she wanted to.
“Maybe,” Missy said softly, “maybe it’s not that bad.”
“Well, maybe yours is,” Shiloh spat back.
Missy recoiled, and for the first time, Shiloh saw regret. As Missy walked back toward the park, Shiloh thought about her bully’s limp hair with the soft waves. She thought about how it moved in the wind and didn’t stay stiff like her own curls. While she walked home, she wondered what her mother would say when she saw her dirty, nappy hair.