The scratching should have been your first clue. For weeks, your five-year-old has been gouging the flesh behind her ears like a Great Dane, sometimes until she bleeds, yet you never put two and two together. Then one day she comes home from school in pigtails, even though you hadn’t sent her off that way. So you call the school, and Nurse Martha—a woman who knows her nits—says, Yes, your child has lice.
Lice! The black plague of the Hello Kitty set!
After reading that the females live for 30 days and lay eight nits a day, you—mortified and suddenly itchy—go to Walgreens and buy a lathery insecticide for $14.99 and the humiliating little comb. Then you go to work on your daughter’s hair, feeding her M&M’s with toxic fingers to stop her screams of protest. Twenty minutes later, you think, That’s that and figure you’re done. The next day she’s still scratching. You part her hair at the nape and see the black bugs scurrying from the light. Same story on top. Dozens of them: scurrying, fornicating. You learn that lice have built up a resistance to several over-the-counter treatments. Lice laugh at that stuff from Walgreens. So you Google “Chicago lice removal,” find a handful of delousing companies with cutesy names—Lice Busters, Nitpickers, Happy Hair—and choose the closest one.
Oh, we can squeeze in your daughter tomorrow, says the soothing woman who answers the phone at Hair Fairies, the kid-friendly salon in Lincoln Park. It’s $95 an hour, one-hour minimum. Money-back guarantee. Fine, whatever. What time?
Other than the adorable framed photo of a stuffed louse at the front desk, Hair Fairies seems like any kids’ hair cuttery: clean, colorful, scented with eucalyptus. There’s free candy and a play area. A cheerful woman in hospital scrubs gives your tyke a portable DVD player and proceeds to break up the raging louse party on her skull. She combs the hair, wets it, applies a cream to help loosen the eggs, applies an herbal shampoo that’s supposed to inhibit breeding, and repeats—inspecting every single strand. It takes awhile. You ease onto the immaculate leather couch with other shell-shocked parents and hear their laments.
My daughter hasn’t been allowed at school for a week.
My son refuses to cut his hair. We’re here for the third round this year.
My daughter was uninvited from a sleepover. Everyone knows why.
My neighbor spent $3,000 on her four kids and their nanny.
You examine the paperwork and read that the money-back guarantee is valid only if your child undergoes three to four treatments and the entire family also gets checked (at $95 an hour each). And if you want to avoid future visits, you might look into a special shampoo ($25), conditioner ($27), laundry additive ($20), repellent spray ($14), hand soap ($10), and nit-zapping comb ($12)—all of which are available at Hair Fairies, of course. Just as you’re cursing the place, your child’s nit-picker calls you over to show you a white towel covered with black spots. Those spots represent 45 bugs and 100-plus nits, pulled from your daughter’s head while she was lost in her Pixar paradise. You pony up another $50 to get your own head checked.
“When can we go back?” your daughter asks on the way home, her braided hair declared lice-free, her belly full of Smarties. Never, you think, but you know that you’ll be back, and you’re overflowing with fury, not just at the Hair Fairies—who’ve got you by the scalp, and they know it—but at whatever awful parents sent their mangy kid to school to infect innocent children. It’s only later, when you hear another girl in the class rhapsodizing about her own trip to Hair Fairies, that you realize you might be the guilty one.