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Relative and Irrelevant by Zero


I

Their hold on his hair was brutal. He could feel the strands being pulled out by the sheer force and pressure on his scalp.

"Mark!" he screamed his best friend’s name as they threw him on the concrete sidewalk.
"Come on! Do something to protect your boyfriend!" they didn’t stop yelling taunts.
Kyle struggled against their grip as he watched his best friend being held down on the floor, the punches coming over and over again against his face "He's not my boyfriend! Leave him alone!" he could feel the strain he was putting on his vocal cords "Please!".
"Shut up! You f***ing femme boy!" the fists of one of them collided against his mouth "You keep your mouth shut or we’re f***ing you both up real bad".

In the dark, he distinguished a flash of silver and saw the guy who had punched him holding a pocket knife in one hand and his heart pounded faster.

They were being followed. They were following them since the they left the main avenue. And he should have called his dad (he was a cop, after all) or run to the nearest crowd, the nearest police station, whatever came first. But he didn't. He just continued walking, hoping they would get away. They didn’t.

A few minutes later, they had ganged up on them and subdued them violently.

"Look at that sissy ass long hair you have" one of the sneered "Are you gay?".

Sometimes the question was an indiscrete whisper in his ears, said underneath the breath. But others it was accompanied by a piercing, mocking tone, punctuated by a line of shark-like teeth.

And it was then when his fist moved faster than his mind and he would try to knock out a couple of teeth in a powerful swing.

But with three guys holding him, that wasn’t so easy.

"Maybe we should set your hair on fire, what do you think?" one of them said "We would be doing you a favor and making you look like a man, femme boy".

They flicked the switch of a lighter. He was terrified. But he could take them on.

No, he couldn't. They had a knife. Yes, he could face them. He didn't have a choice! No, there was no way. He had to! No, it was dangerous, and it would only make things worse! Mark would fight them! What was he doing? He couldn't just stand there! He had to fight back! No! These guys were armed!

His mind spun as he took every blow to his stomach, and he could hardly register his own pain when he watched them viciously kicking Mark. His mind was running back and forth between measuring himself up against them (outnumbered and outmatched) or trying to preserve his and Mark's physical integrity without scaling violence any further.

Fight or flight.

He saw the lighter approaching his face and shut his eyes.

It was then when the patrol approached, and they ran off.

As soon as they let him go, Kyle went to his best friend's limp form in panic and signaled the vehicle, screaming for help.


II

"Do you recall any distinguishing marks?" the police officer interrogated him.

He ran a hand through his hair, damp with sweat, the strands clung to his hot nape. He needed a shower. Badly. His pink t-shirt was stained with blood from his mouth and nose.

"It was dark, I couldn't see much but..." he remembered the guy holding the lighter "A tattoo, on his hand, it read 'alpha', it was on the right" he snapped his fingers softly on the same hand.
She took note and got up from the chair beside him "Thank you, young man" Kyle watched her leave.
"Kyle, my love, are you okay?" his mom's hands rushed to touch his face, with her fingers, she set his bangs aside a couple times to take a better look at the damage they inflicted.
"I'm fine".

They arrived in the hospital earlier on and Mark was unconscious the whole way there. As his best friend’s parents spoke to the doctor, he caught that his best friend had a broken arm and breastbone. If he was lucky, he would be allowed to go back home at the end of the following day. Kyle brushed his long red hair out of his face and secured his bangs behind his ears. It had been his fault.

His mom looked the way Mark’s parents were and walked straight towards them with concern in her eyes while asking him to excuse her. He could see the powerlessness and worry on the people he had grown to consider his second parents and his heart wretched.

On the other side of the corridor, out of the corner of his eye, he saw his father in uniform talking to his colleagues, his mouth was pressed into a thin line and his brow was furrowed as he heard their report.

"They've been terrorizing young couples for weeks now. This is the third report we receive" he overheard part of the conversation.

He looked down in shame and tried to block their voices out. Then, he heard his dad’s footsteps on the floor tiles coming close to him and he didn’t dare to make eye contact.

Sometimes, he had the feeling that his father had his suspicions about the fact that he had never showed any interest in the opposite sex.

"I taught you self-defense! You took up boxing for years!" came his first accusation "Why didn't you do anything!? What are you a coward!?".
"They had a knife, dad!" he shot back "What was I supposed to do? Hit them back to provoke them further and make them whip it out? Make them stab us?".
"Kyle..." his father lowered his voice.
"I’m sorry I was scared! It just goes to prove further the disappointment I am to you" Kyle got up from the chair and walked away from him.
"Kyle, you’re not…" his dad watched him go "KYLE!".

He didn’t respond. He could feel tears stinging in his eyes and he cursed himself for letting his emotions show. He wished he was braver.

He didn’t talk to his parents about what happened or about anything else the whole long, sleepless night.


III

The next morning, Kyle woke up with a headache. Maybe he had had since yesterday, but he had not noticed until now. His house was quiet. It was still very early. Downstairs, he could hear his father talking on the phone to his colleagues about the incident.

He looked in the mirror, and found his own tired eyes staring back at him. His beaten, torn lip. The dried blood on his eyebrow.

He knew it was nothing compared to what they did to Mark.

Kyle couldn't stop thinking about what could have happened if the patrol hadn't casually driven by.

'Femme boy'.

Their words stayed with him and the image of his best friend unconscious on the sidewalk burned into his mind.

He knew he wasn't the epitome of manliness, that he had spent most of his early childhood mistaken by a girl, and even now at seventeen he didn't have body or facial hair to speak of. Besides his hands and arms from his boxing years, his rather noticeable Adam’s apple were his only distinctly male traits.

Looking so delicate and vulnerable (he cringed at thinking feminine), he had been an easy target for them and he had made Mark a target as well.

He hated it.

He wished he looked tougher.

Resolution formed inside him, and he sneaked out of his room, tiptoeing his way across the corridor, making sure he remained unheard and unseen as he entered the bathroom.

Digging through the cabinets, he found them inside the drawer.

His dad's hair clippers.

He drew them out, trying not to make any noise and placed them on the counter. They were black and enormous and heavier than he expected.

He looked again into the mirror. Kyle gave himself a couple of seconds to study what he looked like right then. Thick, long red hair down to his shoulders, a vibrant, lively shade he had inherited on his father’s side. His most distinguishing feature and what he considered to be his best asset.

He had spent his childhood years struggling to accept his ginger mane, going as far as covering it with black paint once and asking for it to be shaved off while crying. It had been his dad who had taught him to accept it. His dad who had signed him up for boxing classes and taught him self-defense, so he would be able to look after himself in front of bullies.

It had been his copper locks that had also made it so easy for him to be a target yesterday.

He felt the soft warmth of his hair on his neck, how his side swept fringe caressed lightly his face with a knot on his throat and his hands ice-cold and pale.

He could taste the dried blood coming off his lips in his mouth.

He decided he couldn't risk letting it happen again. And this was necessary.

He turned the hair clippers on. They vibrated and purred in his hand.

Kyle leaned over the sink as he raked his fingers through his long bangs and held them in place, away from his forehead and approached the whirring blades to his hairline. Determined, he pushed them back firmly. In his hand, he could feel how the strands were no longer held by his scalp and how his tug became lighter the further he drove the clippers inside his mane.

He looked at his reflection as he did it, watched as his pale skin revealed. Kyle dropped the first chunk of his hair on the floor. There was an almost bald path on the higher part of his temple. He still had a lot left to cut off. He secured another handful of hair and began to make a second pass up his sideburns. Another clump of shiny red hair joined the first one.

Kyle was methodical as he ran the clippers over his head. He would lift a portion of his hair with one hand and run the bare teeth across his scalp. Then, put down the severed locks and move on.

He had shaved the entirety of the right side when the door opened behind him.

"Kyle, what are you…?" his dad chimed in. His eyes dashed from the shorn hair on the floor to him.

His dad remained speechless and he just lifted the hair on his nape and bowed his head forward to try to get underneath the mass of copper locks and made another swipe.

"Hold on" his dad stepped forward "Let me help you".
Kyle saw his father stretching his hand to him, and resignedly gave him the hair clippers "Thank you" he whispered.
"You’re not using a guard on these" his dad observed.
"I know" Kyle answered him "That’s what I want".

He saw his dad in the mirror. His father had always worn his own coppery hair in a short back and sides and when Kyle’s issues with being a ginger began, he had encouraged him to grow it out. He could tell he looked pained that he wanted to get rid of all of it.

Still, he felt his dad nudging his head forward and pushing the clippers cold teeth through his mane. Kyle supported himself on his palms against top of the counter and watched the clumps falling on the tiles. The contrast of the red of his hair and the white floor was striking.

The clippers made a deep, ferocious sound every time they clashed with his thick hair. It was more and more on the floor with each pass. He felt it coming off weightlessly, without resistance. He didn’t feel regret or sadness.

He needed to do this.

"You know I didn't mean to call you a coward yesterday, I was just so mad about what happened, it frightened me" his dad tilted his head to the side and began shaving off the locks that surrounded his ear "I’m sorry I said that".
"Dad, it doesn’t matter. Really" he emphasized.
"Do you want me to use a guard on top?" his dad tried to change the subject as he finished on his left
"No, I want you to help me out shave it with a razor afterwards".
"Kyle" his dad called his name softly.
"They grabbed me by my hair" he answered "I figured it would be more convenient if I shaved it off" he paused "Besides, I want to look… manlier".

It'd be better if he didn't draw much attention to himself.

His dad held his bangs back and placed the clippers on his forehead and made a long swipe to his crown. He dropped another handful of shiny, copper hair on the floor and continued. Kyle remained still until he was done. He fingered the faint red shadow he had left. The only trace that remained of his ginger mane.

"You can still have long hair and look manly" his dad told him "I think manliness is not defined by how you wear your hair. That’s relative and irrelevant, if you ask me".
Kyle didn’t answer.

His dad looked for the can of shaving cream and lathered his scalp. He didn’t make any more questions and started scraping the white foam from his head.

"Besides, I think you have to be pretty confident in your masculinity to wear long hair and those light pastel colors like you do and pull it off" his dad added as he shaved off the remaining stubble and washed the disposable razor in the sink "And I’m proud of you. No matter what" he took a towel and cleaned the foam behind his ears and on his neck.
"Even if I acted like a coward?" Kyle croaked.
"You were not a coward, Kyle. The men that attacked you yesterday… they are dangerous people and we’re hunting them down. And if something else happened, if they threatened you or something, you have to let me know, okay?".
"Okay" he answered looking in the mirror, touching his hairless scalp with his hand. The first adjective that came to his mind when he saw himself bald was not ‘tough’, it was ‘masculine’ but in the word felt weak, doubtful and flat, almost meaningless to him.

His long red mane was gone, and he thought his eyes seemed too big for his face, all of his injuries from yesterday were in plain sight now. Kyle clenched his jaw and hoped his shaven head hid his own vulnerability from people. And maybe himself too. He didn’t feel any braver or less scared than he had before.

"In our family, we don't keep secrets from each other. Don't forget that" his dad patted him on the shoulder and left.

Kyle looked at the hair on the floor and felt detached and numb. He couldn’t decide at the moment if he really wanted to stick with the shaved head or not.

His dad’s words gave him the impression that he knew more than he let him on, maybe more than he did.


IV

He heard his mom say that Mark was back at home already and he put on the most neutral t-shirt he could find with a pair of jeans and headed to his best friend’s house. His bald head felt tender and the chilly night air bit into his scalp.

His best friend’s parents didn’t recognize him at first when they opened the door and he made up an excuse that he wanted to take up boxing again and long hair got in the way to satisfy their curiosity. Kyle wasn’t sure they ate up his lie, but they both encouraged him to do so if that was what he wanted.

Then, he saw Mark. His best friend had a cast that immobilized his right arm and bruises on his face. One of his eyes was swollen and bloodshot. But none of that stopped him to greet him with a grin and react with shock to his shaved head when he realized it was him. He followed his best friend to his bedroom and he closed the door.

"I’m kind of stuck at home for about a week, and it kind of sucks. But this is not going to stop me from going from kicking your ass at FIFA, just so know" Mark smirked with confidence.
"Actually, I’ve been thinking about what happened with those guys and…" Kyle struggled with the words "I believe it's best if we stop hanging out together. I don't want people getting the wrong idea, especially about you. And I don't even know if I'm..." he stopped himself "...If I'm into men. I mean, not yet, I'm not sure".
"Whoa, stop right there!" his best friend ran a hand through his short black hair "Kyle, are you saying that… are you in love with me!?".
"WHAT!?" he felt the blood rush to his face "NO! That’s not what I’m trying to say! Of course, I’m not in love with you! You’re like my brother! Even if I… if I happened to really like men… I wouldn’t… gosh, Mark!".
The other teenager exploded with laughter.
"Okay, you don’t have to laugh either" Kyle looked away "I’m still so confused trying to figure this out. The thing is that if I…".
"Dude, I don't care, you know that, right?" Mark put his hand on his shoulder "You're my best friend, and nothing's going to change that".
"What about those guys from yesterday?".
"F*** those guys" he replied with a smile "I'm glad you're there to keep me from doing dumb, dangerous s**t. I mean, you've talked me out of stealing my parents' car and sneaking out of the house like a hundred times. Besides, You're the kindest, funniest, most stylish guy I know, and not to mention the best wingman in the world".
"Living with three sisters has its perks, I suppose" Kyle felt warmth inside him.
"Listen, I know you're a sensitive guy and maybe a little more in touch with your feminine side than most of us, Kyle, but that's who you are" Mark said "And we love you that way. Please don't forget that".
"I don't deserve you" he told him, genuinely touched.
"I'm not going to deny that" the other shrugged.
Kyle flipped him off in response.
"And what's up with that of us not being friends anymore? What are we? Third graders?" Mark raised an eyebrow at him.
"Well, you're more like kindergarten level, if you ask me" he answered him nonchalantly.
"Dude, I still can’t believe you shaved your head bald" Mark stared at him "But you're going to be so f***ing cold".
"Not as cold as you left Julia when she invited you over the other day".
His best friend stared daggers at him "You're one cold-hearted bastard".
"Only the best for my best friend" Kyle laid against the wall and paused "So, X Men marathon tonight?".
"You know, you should totally be Professor X this Halloween now" Mark taunted him.

Kyle laughed and decided that maybe he would keep the shaved head for a while, perhaps a couple of months (Mark was right about him being cold and he definitely wanted to have hair on his head for winter). Having no hair it had its perks, after all.






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