In “Natural Selection” by Diana Reed, a small moment becomes a pathway for a much larger conversation. As the mother combs lice out of her daughter’s hair, she searches for a way to reassure her children—and herself.
The boy wields the new blue lice comb. It has two sets of tiny teeth and a bright light, like an undersea monster. He shines the light on his sister’s forehead. His mother and sister brush him away, and he jumps off the toilet seat to look for his alien ship, adrift somewhere in the living room.
The mother’s grip tightens on the girl’s shoulder. “Hold still,” she says. Her voice dips lower, trying to slide under the sound of the toilet flushing. “I can see another one of those little shits now,” she whispers.
Her daughter hears and hisses, “Mom! It’s just a bug.”
“Don’t move.” The mother pins the daughter’s hair to her head, then locates the sliver of movement beneath the strands. Her finger presses down, holds, grinds. She waits until she is sure she has squashed out its life. She removes her fingertip from the scalp and exalts to find the louse reduced to a smudge. She expends a full flush for this tiny creature, ignoring the water and energy waste. She is merciless. She’ll use chemical weapons, brute force, drowning, anything and everything at her disposal.
“It’s kind of cool, though,” the daughter is saying. “How they’ve survived? Even with all these chemicals trying to kill them off. Don’t you think, Mom?”
“Mmm.” She sprays her daughter’s hair, pulls the comb close against the scalp, inspects.
The girl tries again. Her scientific observations usually garner approval. “You know, like how some of them survived, even though the others didn’t? They’re, like, rezealient?”
The mother lets the mispronunciation go. She combs, pulls, rinses. She has read everything Wikipedia has to offer on the biology of the super louse. Those that invade today’s classrooms have evolved beyond the minor lice of her own childhood. Despite the claims on the over-the-counter treatments, the newly evolved “super louse” is resistant to their chemical ingredients, so the CDC recommends a time-honored approach: the nit comb.
The boy returns, holding his ship. “Pluto is not a planet anymore. It is too small and too cold,” he says, landing his ship on the back of the toilet.
“It’s a still a dwarf planet,” the girl says.
“But not a regular planet,” the boy says.
The girl points at the sink. “Mom killed a bunch of them. Look.” The larvae float in the cast-off lid of a bottle, their tiny legs curled up underneath their partly-formed bodies.
The boy reaches a hand toward them. “Can I keep them?”
“No! I’m putting them outside, at the end,” the girl says.
The girl squeals as the comb pulls out a few long hairs. The hairs drift toward the floor, where they disappear into the fluff of the bath rug.
“Will our planet get to stay a regular planet?” the boy asks, swerving his ship between the towels on the rack.
“Yes,” his sister answers with assurance. “It doesn’t work like that. Pluto should never have counted.”
But the mother remembers when Pluto had counted. In the text of her sixth-grade science book, it had been small and round and purple—but still, one of the nine. It floated at the end of the galaxy, smaller and farther from the action than the others, and she had felt solidarity with it, out there on the edge of things like she was.
The baby lice float in their solution, bellies up, bouncing gently with the hairdryer waves that sweep across the surface.
“What about us, Mom?” the boy asks. “Our planet. Will we survive?”
The mother waits for the girl’s response. The girl is always ready with answers, voice full of authority; she can be counted on for a comfortable and unambiguous answer. But the girl is silent. Both faces are upturned. The mother thinks of her small son, whom a peanut could kill, then of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that might be hiding in the spinach she has pureed into their smoothies. She thinks of the reports about rainforest and coral reef destruction in her daughter’s homework assignments, the extreme weather predictions and infection rates that have turned everyone she knows into amateur data scientists. She thinks of an island she once visited slowly sliding underwater.
She rinses out the comb. A sputter and a popping noise remind her of the pot of water on the stove: It has begun to boil, and the pasta must go in. Another head of hair must be inspected, baths completed, stories read. The children are waiting for her to respond. It should be an easy answer. Why can’t she give it?
She half-nods, half-shrugs, a response the children mysteriously accept. She hands them the homemade petri dish, and they run out the back door to spill its contents into the alley. The lice have died without the chance to appreciate their freedom, but even if they’d lived, the alley would have been no escape: they needed her children’s blood to survive.
Their little louse bodies and the antibacterial soap that envelops them will mix with the rainwater, joining the slow infiltration of the water supply, drifting down into the gutters and the sewers. There the mother finds her answer to the boy’s question. Humans will outdo themselves—burn out, exhaust their resources, make the planet uninhabitable for their own species. The creatures dependent on them—the rats, squirrels, raccoons, head lice—won’t make it either. The survivors will be the beetle families that dwell in these dark places, crawling through the fringes of her world as they wait for their moment to arrive.
Diana Reed’s writing explores climate change, mental health, and social inequality. She lives in Chicago, Illinois, where she works as a data strategist and mixed-methods researcher in the field of education. Her work has appeared in Blue Earth Review, Bartleby Snopes,The Nottingham Review, and Six Sentences. She recently finished the first novel in a trilogy, 5 Degrees, which envisions a post-climate change world in which a team of women scientists seek to restore their civilization’s access to seed stock. Read more about Diana’s work at http://diana-reed.com/.