Defense Mechanism

She blew her nose again and wiped her eyes.  She splashed cool water on her hot face then dried it.

The itch gave a twinge with every heartbeat.

Suddenly, Sylvie remembered waking up around sunrise–seeing blood on her pillow, thinking she was dreaming.

It’s probably been itching all night, she realized.  That’s probably what caused thisI scratched and scratched for hours until the hair came out and my head started to bleed.

If scratching clear through the skin hadn’t gotten the itch, Sylvie thought, then cutting herself up further wasn’t going to do much good.

I’ll just have to ignore it.

But now that she was aware of it, she couldn’t seem to focus on anything else.

*     *     *

Sylvie faked cramps.  Her crying jag had taken its toll on her appearance, and neither the school nurse nor her dad questioned her.

At home, in her own bathroom, Sylvie stood in front of the mirror holding a small hand mirror behind her head, and had her first clear look at the sore spot.

It was ugly, dotted here and there with tiny scabs, and clearly visible through her hair.  It was also bigger than she had thought.

Worse than anything, the itch remained, just beneath the dull throbbing.  During the car ride home, Sylvie had managed to refrain from scratching.  But now–

Sylvie put down the hand mirror and raked her fingernails across her scalp and neck–all over, except directly on the sore.  She hoped to distract her body from the itch by scratching everywhere else.


It was so frustrating.  So maddening.

Maybe one good scratch wouldn’t hurt, she thought.

Before she had time to second-guess herself, she dug the nails of her first and middle fingers deep into the bloody spot and gave it one hard, deep scrape.

It was agony.

She cried out in shock and anguish.  Tears streamed down her cheeks.  The pain was so intense it drowned the itch for just a second.

Then the itch returned.





*     *     *

Dad stopped drilling when Sylvie entered the garage.  He pushed his glasses from his nose to his forehead.

“How do you feel, Syl?” he asked.


She stalked to the refrigerator and took out a Pepsi.  The carbonation seemed to travel from her tongue to the itch, tickling it.

Sylvie grimaced, screwed the cap on the bottle again, and stuck it back in the fridge.  She started inside again.

“Hey, wait a sec,” Dad said.

Sylvie turned back to him.  He looked concerned.  She thought maybe he’d noticed the sore.

“I don’t want you to worry,” he said.


“About me getting…”  He traced a line across his neck with one finger like he was cutting his throat.  “You know.  Axed.  Mom, she gets a little dramatic sometimes.  But things are going to be all right.”



“Sure,” Sylvie said.  “Yeah.”

Dad nodded.

“So things are a little tough right now, kiddo, so what?” he said.  “Print advertising sales… well, it’s not a great area to have to look for… anyway.  It’s not your job to worry about it.”

Sylvie’s gaze fell on the slab of wood secured to Dad’s workbench with three small vices.  An ancient-looking Native American chief with a wrinkled face and feathered headdress seemed to be rising from the grain, slowly taking form.

Dad saw her looking at the carving and smiled.

“You like him?” he asked.

Sylvie was hardly aware he had spoken.


It took all her concentration not to scratch.

“That’s the one good thing about being unemployed,” Dad said.  “You might wind up homeless–”


“–but at least you’ve got plenty of time for your hobbies.”

He slid his glasses back onto his nose and bent over his work.

“You can hang out with me, if you feel up to it,” Dad said.

He squeezed the trigger of the carving drill.  The bit bore into the wood.  Sawdust flew.

*     *     *

The sight of the sore made Sylvie nauseous.  At some point, early in the evening, she’d fallen asleep.  And in her sleep, she had been scratching.  The bald patch had nearly doubled in size since the last time she’d looked at it.

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