JACKSONVILLE, FLA. -- At 6 in the morning, the house is dark, and the only person awake is a 12-year-old girl too excited to sleep. She wades through a pile of clothes on the floor and checks her hair in the mirror.
School is out for Christmas break, so she eats sour cream-and-onion potato chips and drinks a Coke for breakfast, turns the TV on without asking and slowly begins to brush her hair.
It tumbles over her shoulders, spills down her back and shines auburn in the light. For the first time in a year, Kristen Culpepper doesn't worry about how she looks. She feels normal again, thanks to dozens of other girls. They're all strangers, but their stories are much the same.
Take the two sisters in North East, Md., hundreds of miles away. The Winnie the Pooh alarm clock buzzes like a bee at 7 in their house near the Pennsylvania border. There's a dusting of snow on the ground when they come down the stairs, ponytails bouncing. They wear Christmas sweatshirts their grandmother made, and just before they run to catch the school bus, their mother puts fluffy red pompons in their brunette hair.
Kristen used to love to dress up, too, and play Barbies with her friend next door. Amber Farmer didn't like for anyone to play with her hair, but Kristen didn't mind. Hers was thick and brown, and in the summer, it streaked blond and red.
That was before Kristen's mother found the bald spot behind her ear. It was under her hair, about the size of a quarter, as soft and smooth as when she was born.
The pediatrician said she had a condition called alopecia, but he didn't know what caused it, or how to stop it.
By the time she saw a dermatologist, another spot had appeared, and Kristen found hair in the bathtub, on her pillow in the upper bunk, in the brush she kept in a shiny white bag covered with butterflies.
At first, she covered the bald spots with barrettes and bows. But soon there were too many to hide so she wore floppy hats; her favorite had Winnie the Pooh on it. Still, kids at school knew something was wrong.
"If you have long hair, people love to play with your hair," Amber says. "If you have short hair and it's thick, people can still play with it, with clips and stuff, but if you have no hair, it's like you're not cool enough to be around."
Amber never worried she could catch the condition, which is permanent, although another girl's mom called Kristen's mom before a sleep-over to see if what she had was contagious.
Even after Kristen wore a wig, kids made fun of her. One girl spread a rumor that she had cancer. Another told everyone she was bald. One girl demanded money and threatened to pull the wig off, so Kristen gave her $7.
"I was like, that's so unfair," says Amber. "I told her last year I would get up on the stage and tell everybody what she had. Even the 15-year-olds didn't know about alopecia."
"My teachers didn't know about it, either," Kristen says.
Kristen was never a good student, but fifth grade was the hardest. She didn't understand fractions and decimals; she didn't like reading. She worried her wig would fall off, so she quit doing cartwheels and round-offs and standing on her head, and she stopped dressing for gym.
By the time summer arrived, Kristen had lost all her hair, even her eyebrows and eyelashes. She lived nine miles from the beach but wouldn't swim because she worried a wave would snatch her wig. Not that she would miss it. It was itchy, hot and didn't fit right. Kristen had picked it out because she thought it looked real but now she hated it. On Aug. 17, when she turned 12, she blew out her birthday candles and wished for her hair to grow back, all the way to her feet.
In Maryland, two sisters with hair to their knees went swimming in their backyard pool nearly every day. Their favorite thing was diving for coins. Jennie Patchell even did it in the rain.
The part the girls didn't like was after they got out of the pool. When their mom brushed out the tangles chlorine made the combing painful so, for the first time, they thought seriously about cutting their hair.
Their mom warned them to sleep on the decision. They went upstairs to their rooms that night and they lay there, surrounded by Beanie Babies, Barbie dolls and a Piglet they brought home from Disney World.
Jennie, 10, went first the next day. She stood on the toilet seat, and her dad held her hair as her mom cut it. Nine-year-old Kristine went next.
Their mom cut off more than 10 inches, but that left enough for bows, ribbons and then, for Christmas, red pompons.
They mailed their ponytails to a charity that makes wigs for children; their mom had seen it discussed on "Oprah." Kristine wondered: How would they make it and who would get it? Where did she live and what was wrong with her and would she have to wear a hairnet like the women in the cafeteria?