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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

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19 down

How do you get a colour like that?

No cameras, and the curved mirror in the corner works both ways: an upward glance is all it takes for him to be sure that nobody's watching. He can see the counter (bald man choosing tissues), the door, even the passers-by outside: brown, brown, red, grey, blonde, brown.

He adds them to the tally. A hundred and ninety since he left the office for lunch, not counting the men and the children and the greys, and he must have lost track once or twice but he's pretty sure that at least seventy of them were blonde. More than a third, for a hair colour that comes naturally to three percent of the world's population. Maybe it stretches to five percent in Australia, call it ten percent because summer's just ending and he's generous, but that still means most of them are faking it. He bets the shop assistant's dark brown is a lie as well; it's not just the blondes you can't trust. There's Cerise from admin, for a start, pale with the light brown eyebrows of an obvious liar, tube-squeezed black hair sheening blue under fluorescent lights. He's spoken to Human Resources about it, and they won't do anything, not even when her own hands prove the dress-code violation, sticky with unwashable guilt under her fingernails.

The door beeps someone in, and he picks a box from the shelf, pretending to read the back while he glances up again. The room bulges in miniature from the mirror. Near the front there's a woman browsing the cough medicine: another brown.

Brown isn't too bad. Red is the worst, that dark bright red: worse than the deception of blonde or black, or the open fakery of purple and green, just close enough to the clean beauty of nature to remind him what it's a corruption of. Dress code enforcers pretend it's natural, but there's never been anyone with that kind of hair from birth. Even the boxes lie, call it ruby or sunset or camellia, but rubies and sunsets don't look like that. Nothing does, not flowers, not crushed beetles or ground earth, not stewed coral or anemones. How do you get a colour like that? You need blood from a thousand peacocks fed on strawberries, you need a million chemicals with tri-partite names, you need a cauldron.

He pulls the first syringe out of his pocket and flicks open the bottom of the box, slides the tube of developer from where it's nestled between warning sheets and instructions and the bottle. A spot near the bottom is best, just next to the seal. He's practiced this at home half a dozen times, and there's no need for his hands to shake, he can do it without looking, but he looks anyway, just in case, and then back up to the mirror. The bald man's leaving. Beep. Beep again, and the brown coughing woman leaves too.

The chemicals are expensive, so he's only got four syringes, enough to treat eight tubes. He goes for two Warm Chestnuts to start with, fumbling with the second and knocking it off the shelf. Two Ruby Sunsets after that. Deep breaths. He panics for a moment when he looks up and the shop assistant's not at the counter any more (maybe she's behind him, maybe she's phoning the police), but before he can run for the door she steps out of the back room, oblivious. It's still okay. Hurry up.

A Deep Cherry, then a Geranium. One syringe left; two doses. He's only tested this with shades of red, and he isn't sure whether the chemicals will work on anything else, but you have to take risks if you want to make a difference. Half of the last into a Starlight Jet, then, and the other half into a Golden Fields, and he's done. He's not safe yet, but he's on the way. A packet of jelly beans as he leaves, to allay suspicion: he smiles at the girl behind the counter, and maybe her hair's genuine after all, and he almost can't contain the excitement of it all.

At the door his chest splits open and leaves him room to breathe at last, and he's out.

He drops the empty syringes in a rubbish bin: it's a waste, but he's already done his bit to make the world green, and he walks on, grinning at passers-by, even Cerise from the office, even the women with red hair.