A Breath of Fresh Air by Zero
"What are you going to do with the house?"
"I don't know yet" there was a pause "Would you like to stop by the cemetery before we get on the road?".
As his godfather had told him, they left at 4:00 a.m. sharp and Miles felt like he no longer had tears left anymore as his godfather drove him away from the place he had called home.
The therapist had told Miles (tried to convince him) that a change of environment, ('a breath of fresh air' in her words) would be beneficial for him.
He had lost his mother. The last thing he wanted was losing his friends and his girlfriend as well and spending his junior and senior year of high school away from them.
His phone was in the depths of his backpack, buzzing incessantly with messages from them, he had only turned it at his godfather's insistence that he needed a way to check on him.
Like he had cared before.
He eyed the man in the driver's seat. James Whitaker. Colonel James Whitaker. Retired. He was his mother's only brother and his godfather. Serious. Dry. Stern. A total hard-ass. For most of his childhood and teenage years he had been reassigned back and forth to the Middle East and across the country for years, so except for a couple sporadic holidays he could count on one hand, he hardly ever saw him.
And now he was going to move in with him.
"You can't have your hair like that anymore" he said suddenly, his eyes barely grazing him for a split second before focusing back on the road.
Miles stared at him with shock. Like what? What was he talking about?
His chestnut hair had grown a couple inches since he last saw his godfather, almost five months ago, and he liked it long just fine, the way it was right now, almost touching his shoulders, thank you very much.
"You're going to have to get a haircut" he paused "Just thought I'd give you a head ups".
Retired. But still a military officer at heart. Running his house like a boot camp. Just f***ing great. He guessed a barbershop was probably going to be his first stop to get his hair off his collar and his ears, if not downright to military regulations.
Probably he was going to ask the barber to give him a very short crewcut just like his or something.
He hadn't had short hair since he was in grade school. He wasn't looking forward to that.
"Wake up. We’re here".
Miles rubbed his eyelids and watched a towering building rising in front of him. He still felt light-headed and disoriented from his slumber.
His time in the military had given his godfather a supernatural ability to stay awake for long hours and while he had slept the whole road, the man had somehow managed to keep driving without much of a blink of an eye while he slept in his seat.
Soon enough, he was carrying his luggage inside the elevator and heading to his godfather’s apartment. He retrieved his phone from his backpack and looked at the time. 12:12 p.m. He was a good eight hours away from his friends and his girlfriend.
"Are you hungry? I think there’s an apple in the fridge, you can take it and we’ll go for lunch later".
The mention of food was tempting, and eight hours without eating anything was a very long time, so Miles didn’t think twice before heading to the kitchen and looking for the fruit.
"There’s literally only water in the fridge" he told the retired officer.
"Really?" his godfather sounded embarrassed "I’m sorry, it’s that I’m hardly ever here".
Claudia had written him a couple of messages, asking if he had already arrived. He typed a reply as his godfather opened the door.
"This is your bedroom" the retired officer’s tone remained distant as he opened the door to a rather colorless and dull room "Let me know when you’re all set".
"Um, I have a question" Miles remembered suddenly.
"How far away is school? Can I walk there from here or do I have to take a bus or…?".
"Miles, I think I mentioned before to you that I’m head of the George Washington Military Boarding School in the outskirts of the city" the retired officer said in a slow, measure tone. "And considering our current situation, I intend you to finish your education there, under my supervision. You’ll agree with me that it’s for the best".
Miles could hardly process what he heard, but once he did, he exploded.
"Are you out of your mind!? I don't want to go to a military school! I want to go to a regular one! Everything it's already bad enough as it is!".
He tried to remain patient in return "Miles, I want to keep you close to me. And it's the only way".
"No! It's not! Why don't you just leave me back at home with my friends instead and give me a monthly allowance or something?"
"Your mom wanted me to take care of you if something ever happened to her…" the man couldn’t finish.
Miles raised his voice "Why didn’t you tell me anything before!?"
"When would have it been an appropriate time, Miles? At my sister’s funeral?" his godfather exhaled in exasperation "I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, but ever since I’ve had a lot on my mind! I decided to wait until you had finished the school year to have you move in with me and I even let you spend the summer with your friends back home. Because I thought it would be for the best if you did!".
"What would be best is if you just drove me back!" Miles spat back.
"I want nothing more than your life and mine to remain the way they were!" the retired colonel looked him in the eye "We both know it's not happening".
This was a disaster. He couldn’t spend the rest of his school years at some military style prison. Miles dug both his hands in his hair as he sat down in bed.
"I know it’s hard, but you'll be able to see your friends in the summer, I'll let you spend Christmas there if you want to. But I want you around, right now" his godfather left the room.
Miles had no idea how a heart attack felt, but he was sure he was having one. What kind of nightmare was he having? He wanted to wake up already. Wake up and see his mom fine, beside him and going to his regular school and having everything as it should be again.
Then, his godfather returned with a towel in hand. He caught the glimpse of a black cord between his fingers and saw him move the chair from the desk and place it right in front of him.
It was then that Miles realized he was holding a pair of silver and mean looking hair clippers and felt the blood drain from his face.
He couldn't explain with words how much he didn't want any of that. Neither a haircut with that or going to a military school.
Why couldn’t his godfather work at a regular school instead?
"Sit down, let's take care of your hair at once" the retired officer put an attachment on the machine after he plugged it on.
"What do you mean ‘no’?" he put the clippers down on the desk and stared him down "Listen up, I’m used to being obeyed when I give an order…"
Miles didn’t let him finish "Well, I’m not one of your soldiers that you can just order around!".
"Would you please be reasonable?" the man groaned
"I don’t want to shave my head!" the teenager replied.
"I’m not shaving your head! I’m just going to give you a buzz cut!" he answered "All of the students are required to have their hair cut short. I will not make an exception for you".
"WHAT?" Miles’ eyes went wide "A buzzcut!?".
"I decided on a number one. That way you'll be able to go longer without getting another haircut. It should last at least a month or so before it starts growing out. Besides, a buzz cut it’s practical and very low maintenance and we’ll both save a lot of time…".
"No way. I'm not doing that" he said.
"Well, I could just give a zero all over instead, like the one I got when I entered the Military Academy" the man replied "We have rules at the school and regulations concerning physical appearance, and they apply to all of our students".
"F*** your rules! I don't even want to go there!"
"Watch your language" his godfather’s tone hardened "Like I said, I will not give you special treatment, is that clear?".
"I don't want to cut my hair!" Miles yelled.
"I'm not dying to cut your hair either! You can grow it down to your ass and dye it purple once you're in college if you want, I really don't care what you do to your hair. But right now, you're keeping it according to the school's rules. So let's just get this over with at once!".
"How about I'm not going to some goddamn military school!".
"Come on, Miles…".
"Well, sorry if I'm not ecstatic about going to the place my mom always threatened to send me off with every time I misbehaved when I was a kid!".
"What?" his godfather's face went blank "What exactly did my sister tell you about the school?"
Miles didn't answer right away, not knowing how the retired officer would react if he said another word.
"What? Did she tell you that we make boys run a thousand laps with their uniforms on fire?" he rolled his eyes.
"No", the teenager replied in a quiet voice "She said you don't punish them by forcing them to fight each other and starve to death and yell at them until their eardrums rupture".
A throaty noise came from his godfather’s mouth.
Did he just chuckle?
"No, I just actively encourage and reward staff to make students cry. They even keep scores and leaderboards" the man replied with an amused smirk.
"So, you don't make students sleep on razor wire?" Miles continued with hesitation.
His godfather shrugged "No, but occasionally we send them to jump off a cliff nearby. Multiple times. Just for fun. We couple it with popcorn and drinks. Also we yell scores for every jump" he added with a laugh.
Huh. Not so humorless after all.
The teenager smiled "And you don't make them shower with scalding hot water that their skin melts off?".
His godfather shook his head from side to side, still laughing "Seriously? My sister told you all that? No wonder you’re terrified".
"My mom was pretty terrifying sometimes" Miles laughed as well.
He looked at him with a faint smile on his lips for a while.
"So, do we take care of your hair right now?".
Miles heard the question with dread. He rested his eyes on the hair clippers on top of the desk, lying in wait for his decision. He thought silently and for a second, he could imagine his mom’s voice nagging him to do as his godfather said.
He guessed it was better if he got it over with.
"Sit down" his godfather changed the attachment again "I decided I’m using a number two instead. Alright?".
Miles was relieved that for some reason he had chosen to leave him some more hair "Alright".
He raked his fingers through his chestnut hair. Soft, long, abundant and healthy and he thought of his girlfriend, Claudia, who loved his hair and always wrapped her fingers in it when they kissed, tugging slight at his nape. He sat on the chair with his stomach still twisted with knots at the thought of cutting all it off when his godfather wrapped him with the towel over his shoulders. He hugged the ends of it closer to himself
Miles heard the click of the hair clippers switch, followed by a low growl. He hadn’t had them touch his head for some years, and he wasn’t eager to feel them again. He inhaled as he felt his godfather lifting the hair from his right ear first and the buzzing noise’s volume increasing as it went closer to his ear.
"For the record, I still don't want to cut my hair" he flinched a little.
"I know" the retired officer answered.
The guard pushed the locks like a comb before the whirring blades severed them from his scalp almost completely and the way the pitch became lower, let him know they were already working his way to the top of his head. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the shiny, light chocolate locks fall to the floor.
Miles couldn’t believe this was really happening.
For a second, he felt like he was going to faint when he realized how long they were, how short his godfather was cutting his hair. He felt him continue and repeat the same motion right next to the section he had already buzzed.
"Would you like to check it out?" he asked him as he finished a second pass.
Miles nodded and raised a hand to the side of his head. He felt the short hairs under his fingertips like a soft brush and pushed them up and down slowly. He glanced in the mirror. He had more left that he expected, and it didn’t look as bad as he had imagined.
He discovered that he could pull off a sidecut or an undercut and thought that he could get any of those instead.
It was pure wishful thinking.
He knew it was all going to come off.
"So, what do you think? Is it alright?".
"I… I think I don’t really mind that much..." he moved his fingers to the other, longer locks and the contrast in texture was radical. Miles looked at his godfather, he seemed so happy that he was letting him do this and he could tell that he really wanted to look after him, he sincerely did "In fact, I think I wouldn’t mind going shorter" he added "You said that way I’ll go longer between haircuts, right?".
"So, a number one all over?" his godfather took off the attachment without waiting any further for him.
Miles gulped, he was a hundred percent certain he was going to regret saying that "Okay".
"Tilt your head back" his godfather ordered him "Just relax".
He took a deep breath and did so. Miles could feel the end of his mane touching his upper back as he did. His godfather brushed his bangs away from his forehead, so they would sink in the rest of his hand and stroke it a couple times lovingly.
Then he turned on the hair clippers once more.
"I don't really have anything against you having long hair. But I won't have you breaking school policy" he paused "You can grow it out during the holidays if you want to".
Miles saw the metallic teeth approaching his hairline and shut his eyes. His mother’s brother placed them on the middle his forehead and then pushed them back. He felt the locks coming off as the teeth dived further inside his mane.
A part of him was glad he couldn’t see it falling on the floor with his head tilted back.
"And then get it shaved off again".
"I'm sorry, okay?" his godfather buzzed off another section of his bangs and he flinched again "I'm sorry this is not what you want. But it's how things are...".
The top of his head felt awfully lighter now "No, I'm sorry I'm being such a pain... I just...".
Miles felt his godfather move to the side he had buzzed first with the longer guard and quickly evened it out with the top. He could feel his fingers through his scalp as he held his head in place. It felt very different to when he touched his side with the number two.
He kind of panicked.
His godfather must be cutting his hair very short.
"You have a lot of hair".
"My mom, she always thought I'd look handsome with short hair" Miles said as his godfather finished his left side, running the clippers over his ear "I hope Claudia thinks so too".
"Your girlfriend?" he asked.
The teenager sighed "Yeah".
"Okay, you can put your head straight again and I’ll be finished in a second".
Miles felt him fold his left ear and run the clippers behind them. Their movement followed his skull in every turn and every direction. They vibrated against his scalp as they sheared off everything in their path down to a fraction of an inch. The longer hair left on the back of his head felt warm, in contrast to the cold on his sides and his naked forehead without bangs.
His godfather nudged his head forward and placed the blades on his neck. He drove them all the way to his crown. The clippers and his hand got buried under the thick and heavy locks, and with a slight shake of his wrist, he sent them to the floor with the rest.
Miles tried to console himself thinking it was almost over as he had less hair on his head and it was more on the floor every minute that passed.
Again, why couldn’t his godfather be the principal at a regular school instead? Or better yet, not have a career in education at all and just sign him up for a public school and hope for the best.
That way he would have been able to keep his hair.
A good two years before he could grow it out again and then another year more until it reached the length it used to have.
"Your hair had gotten longer since the last time I saw you" he commented.
"I haven't had a haircut since..." Miles took a deep breath "Since my mom passed away. I went to get a couple inches off the week before her surgery".
His godfather buzzed off the last remaining hair and then started running the hair clippers all over his head again, folding his right ear and making sure it was all even.
"Well, get used to this. Because it's going to be a regular thing from now on".
A smile crossed his face.
"You must be hungry, how about we go for burgers or pizza after we’re done here?" his godfather ran the clippers back and forth over his hairline, repeatedly.
"Sounds great" Miles answered.
Not long after, his godfather had finished. And Miles touched his shaven neck with both hands. The retired officer had said that any self-respecting man had to have a clean neckline and after he had already cut off so much, he really didn’t oppose to him using a razor on him.
It was after he was left and he had taken off the towel from his shoulders, that he dared to see the pile of glossy, chestnut hair under the chair. He still felt a pang in his stomach when he saw it. He was horrified at the amount it was. He didn’t even know he had so much of it.
Then, he looked in the mirror.
Yes, he was right. He shouldn’t have encouraged his godfather to cut it any shorter.
That had been a terrible idea.
He had an eighth of an inch left of hair.
A freaking eighth of an inch.
It was barely there. Almost shaven.
So short, it was even difficult to tell what color it was.
He could see his paper-white skin through.
That wasn’t right.
He analyzed the rough stubbly texture with his fingertips.
F*** the military school, indeed.
Well. It was going to grow back.
Maybe he would get used to it.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
He picked up his buzzing phone and saw his girlfriend had texted him asking for an update on how it was going so far. Miles tried to figure out a way to tell her and rose his phone to send her a voice note.
"Well, I’m going to the military school where my godfather works and… I think, we might not be able to chat so often now, I’m not sure what the policy about phones in there is…" Miles said "By the way, I got a haircut. I had to for the school".
‘WHAT :O’ she sent a text right away, then she continued typing ‘YOUR HAIR! OMG WHY? :’(‘ and finally he read another line of text ‘PICTURES. NOW.’.
He let out a soft breath. Then, Miles snapped a quick picture in front of the mirror with his phone’s camera and sent it to her.
He put his hand over his mouth and waited. The anticipation made his pulsations accelerate. Claudia was one of the things that concerned him the most about moving away, she told him repeatedly that they would make a long-distance relationship work, but…
His phone vibrated again. This time she sent a voice message. He hit the play button with fear.
‘Oh my God, Miles!… It’s so…’ she seemed at lost for words and he cringed inside ‘It’s very different...’ he knew she wasn’t thrilled about the fact that her boyfriend had cut off all his hair, he had known it the moment the clippers were turned on ‘I'm going to need time to get used to it...’ she didn’t say anything for a couple seconds ´And it looks so fuzzy! I want to touch it!’
He smiled and recorded another voice note "Yeah. I don’t love it either. But, I have to keep it for a while, so, don’t worry about that, you’ll get to touch it all you want when I visit you… I love you".
‘Love you too <3’ she texted back.
"If you don’t adapt or you want to go back to your old school for your senior year, it’s okay. I’ll figure a way for you to do it" his godfather led his to what would be his dorm.
Miles nodded as he placed his bag on the bed "Thanks".
It was a small bedroom, but very cozy and neat. Miles was happy to have a window where he could see part of the gardens.
"But for the time being, I think, it’s all still very recent and I want you close to me" the retired colonel said "I know I said I wasn't going to give you any special treatment, but I if you ever need anything, I want you to know that the door of my office is always open for you".
He heard the warmth and sincerity in his godfather’s voice and Miles couldn’t help feel touched. Miles made another silent nod in response.
His godfather straightened his back and returned to his stern demeanor "But don't get used to it. I don't want the staff or your classmates thinking I have deference for you or anything, understood?".
"Yes, sir" he rolled his eyes.
"Welcome, cadet Kowalski" he stroked his buzzed head "I'll see you around".
"I'll see you around, sir".
He could feel the gentle breeze coming through the window, caressing the back of his neck. He thought about the breath of fresh air his therapist talked about.
Miles decided to embrace it.