First Impressions by RK08
Connor moved around a lot as a teenager. Changing schools and having to start the year with new friends and a new social standing was stressful. At his age all you had was your sense of identity. Connor and his younger brother Luke had lost their parents when they were very young, and their Uncle John took them in. Uncle John's work tended to take them across the country at times as he moved from job to job. So when the chance of a permanent position in the rural town of Brown’s Creek presented itself, all three were hopeful for some stability.
"How much farther is it?" Luke asked. His voice betrayed excitement that Connor didn't share. They had driven on the highway for ages - long enough for the city radio stations to turn to static and the music on Connor's phone to grow repetitive - before they pulled off. Connor wished he could have driven, but his uncle had insisted. And now the roadside motels, new housing development, and fast food drive-thrus had fallen away in favor of nothing much other than corn and soybeans. It seemed like they were headed off the edge of civilization entirely. On the horizon wind turbines tilted lazily.
"We're nearly there, actually." Uncle John said, tapping something on the GPS. They turned off of the country road and there, behind the row of old oak trees, was the house. It was a farmhouse with a wrap around porch and plenty of windows. A fresh coat of paint made it a dazzling white in the sun. Their new house was already several times better than the rundown condos and bungalows Uncle John's company usually put them up in. The previous occupants had left a lot of furniture and things behind which had made Uncle John happy. While most of their personal items would be brought by the movers, they didn't hang on to a lot of their old furniture. The couches and dining set took a load off of the budget and a weight from Uncle John's shoulders.
"I call this one!" Luke stormed up the stairs and threw his suitcase down on the floor of his new bedroom. He was only four years younger than Connor but he could still be a brat.
"Who said you got the bigger room!?" Connor grumbled at his brother. Uncle John rested his hand on his shoulder, smiling in a way that told him to drop it.
"Relax, Connor," He said. "There are already a bed and dresser in the back bedroom. It'll be another day until the movers can get out here with the rest of our things."
"Wait! That means I have to sleep on the couch?" Luke whined, suddenly looking like he had made the wrong choice.
"Or a sleeping bag," Uncle John chuckled."Your old bed will be here tomorrow."
Connor smirked at his brother and made his way down the hall to his new bedroom.
The walls were painted a plain light blue. The previous occupant had left a stencil of the local baseball team on the wall, and Connor rolled his eyes. He couldn't wait to put up his band posters and skateboard decks to cover it up. His guitar would look good on its stand in the corner by the window. A baseball bat was propped there now. At least the bed looked comfortable enough and had a matching nightstand and a dresser with a mirror.
Connor swept his long golden blonde hair out of his face. It fell into his eyes and covered his ears, turning up ever so slightly at the ends. It had grown longer than usual over the summer - it would probably be down past his shoulders by the end of the year - and it was bolstering his confidence. This was going to be another fresh start, Connor thought to himself. As a new kid in high school, you only had a few opportunities to make a name for yourself. And the most important opportunity was the first day of school. First impressions were everything after all. For the past few years of school that had meant being of a bit of a bad boy for Connor. Uncle John was always too busy to be home, so Connor usually got up to no good with his friends. It was the easiest way to meet people, after all. No one could resist a rebel and the city's suburbs had offered plenty of chances to get up to no good. Surely the cops on the tiny town would have better things to do than harass teenagers. Connor grinned and went to unpack.
"Uncle John!" He yelled. "I thought you said that they had cleaned out all the old owner's junk when they moved out."
Uncle John's company owned several properties across the country. Most of the time they were completely empty when they moved in. This time the dresser had the kind of boring clothes Connor would never wear: plaid button-ups, blue jeans, plain t-shirts, sportswear, a John Deere baseball cap. All of it looked too plain to him.
"Oh, they must've forgotten to get all that. I guess no one wanted it. I didn't see any complaints in my email this morning," Uncle John just shrugged from the doorframe. Connor balled up one of the shirts with the local high school's mascot on it. The next one he held up felt even less likely to be something he'd wear: a US Army t-shirt. "At least they're all in good shape. Practically brand new! You should hang on to them! You could use some new stuff."
Connor just wrinkled his nose and tossed it back in the drawer as his uncle walked away. Most of his clothes were packed away on the moving truck, but he was sure he could make due with the band shirts and black jeans he had. He had on one of his favorite shirts that day: The Ramones.
Connor and Luke unpacked their suitcases and explored their new house. Three bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs, and the rest downstairs. The kitchen and laundry room had thankfully modern appliances, and the living room and dining room already looked settled. It already was starting to feel like a real home. Even Connor seemed more at ease than before.
"Alright, that's the last of them," Uncle John lugged the last box inside from the back of his car and wiped his forehead. "At least we'll have pots and pans."
"Can we get takeout instead?" Connor asked and his uncle sighed and looked about to protest. Then his phone rang and he stepped outside.
"This place is great!" Luke said. "I can’t wait to start school."
"It’s definitely better than our old apartment." Connor said. He heard Uncle John raising his voice on the phone call outside. Luke rummaged through the boxes, probably in search of junk food. The door banged open and Uncle John walked back into the kitchen.
"Bad news, guys," Uncle John returned from the kitchen where he'd been on his phone. "The damned moving company sent all our stuff across country. It'll be another week before it even gets here."
"What! What about all our stuff?" Connor said. Great, just great! He only had a few more shirts left to change into and the rest of his stuff was probably on its way halfway across the continent. He kicked himself for being so stupid when he had packed up his room days before. How could he have left all his stuff in the hands of some moving company? Uncle John massaged his temples.
"I know, I know. I've given them a talking to believe me. But there's nothing they can do. They're short on trucks because it's move-in week at all the colleges."
"What are we supposed to do?" Luke said through a mouthful of cheese puffs. He didn’t seem particularly concerned, and Connor soured. Would he be able to get his stuff back by school? He shuddered at the thought of not having anything to wear.
"We'll have to make do," Uncle John huffed. "I’ll get the laundry machine up and running tomorrow or the next day after work."
A few days passed and while Uncle John worked late into the evenings, the two boys worked on getting the house back in shape. Connor also watched as his clothing supply dwindled down to nothing. The first morning when he realized that he had nothing clean left to wear, he dreaded opening the dresser. On one of their trips through town, Connor had seen some of the guys his own age hanging out around a diner one night. They all dressed in the same basic clothes like the kind Connor found in the drawers. And they all had the kind of hair that probably wouldn’t leave them out of place on a military base.
Connor smirked to himself. At least he wouldn’t have a hard time sticking out and making a name for himself at the start of the school year. That hope alone helped him turn up his nose and put on an athletic shirt, a plaid button-up shirt, and a pair of khaki cargo shorts. At least they fit, Connor sighed, even if they did make him look stupid. He tossed a hat to himself.
"Connor!" His uncle called from downstairs. He heard Luke shut in his room playing a handheld video game. "Could you come down and help me?"
"I’ll be right down! Give me a minute!" Connor grabbed the baseball cap.
"Wow," Uncle John’s eyebrows shot up as Connor walked down the stairs. He scowled at his uncle’s reaction. "You look different. I told you those clothes would be a good fit."
"Whatever," Connor flicked his hair out of his eyes in annoyance. "What’s up?"
Uncle John gestured for him to follow him through the living room and down the little side hallway and into the laundry room. His uncle’s tools were spilled out all over the linoleum floor and the washing machine had been pulled away from the wall. Connor’s heart welled in anticipation. This meant that they were going to have clean clothes! His plans for the first day of school all clicked back into place.
"Whomever installed this machine didn’t have a clue of what they were doing," His uncle said and aimed a flashlight into the dark crevice behind the machine. "See that pipe? The second I turn this thing on it’s going to crack and flood us out."
"What do you want me to do?" Connor asked. He wasn’t exactly the handiest of guys.
"The casters can only go out this far. Do you think you could get in there and hold the pipe in place while I put some of this sealing putty on? The box says it takes ten minutes to dry," His uncle held up a small jar of plumber’s putty. "The guy at the appliance repair shop said this stuff was new and that he swore by it."
It took some acrobatics, but Connor slipped himself between the machine and the cabinetry, his head pressed up hard against the wall and the pipe above him. Uncle John muttered the directions aloud to himself as he mixed the putty. It smelled rank, and Connor shifted closer to the wall and away from the smell. Uncle John slopped the putty on, and Connor narrowly avoided it dripping down and ruining the clothes he was wearing.
"Almost done. Just hold it in place a little longer, Connor," Uncle John glanced at his watch. Connor nodded his head from his position crammed against the wall. "Alright you can go ahead and let go now. Come on out."
Except when Connor moved his head it felt like someone was trying to pull his scalp off.
"Ouch!" He sat up. Uncle John’s eyes widened, and Connor’s heart skipped a beat. He stood up and ran over to the large mirror hanging in the living room. Immediately he was furious. A sizable blob of the putty had settled and dried into his hair. He reached up and gingerly tugged at the sticky substance. How the hell was he supposed to get it out?!
"Uncle John!" He yelled. "What should I do?"
"I don’t know!" His uncle said. "Just don't touch it!"
"You should’ve been more careful!" Connor said, anger building in his chest.
"I didn’t do it on purpose, Connor!"
"What are you two yelling about now?" Luke groaned as he came down the stairs, his game in his hand. He took one look at Connor and burst into laughter.
"Shut up you little freak!" Connor yelled which only made Luke laugh harder.
"Luke," Uncle John’s voice went hard, and Luke tried to swallow his giggles. "Don’t mess with me right now. I mean it."
"Sorry! It’s just Connor looks like a giant bird pooped on his head!" Luke said, then started laughing again. Uncle John placed a firm hold on Connor’s arm as though to hold him back. Connor shoved his hands in the pockets of his shorts. Uncle John rummaged in his own with his free hand and took out his car keys.
"There’s a barbershop up on Main Street," He handed the keys and a crinkled twenty dollar bill to Connor. "Take my car and have him sort you out."
Connor snatched them from his hand and stormed out of the house. Luke was still laughing, though at least Uncle John would squeeze an apology out of him by the time Connor got back. Connor fumed as he slammed the car door and started the engine. Unbelievable! Even though he knew it was an accident he couldn’t believe Uncle John had been so careless. He sped down the country road towards downtown Brown’s Creek. He caught sight of himself in the rearview mirror and tugged the hat down low on his head.
Connor had never been in a "real" barbershop before. In fact it had probably been eighteen months since he'd had anything resembling a haircut at the small, corporate, place down the street from their old apartment. Uncle John had tried to bring him before, but he never put up much a fight when Connor refused. But it looked like Uncle John had won in the end, Connor fumed, even if it had been a stupid accident. To say the least he was pissed enough about the situation. Surely the barber could work some magic to fix it, Connor thought to himself. He had to! It was his first day of school tomorrow. At least he would be spared too much more immediate embarrassment, as the shop was empty when he walked in.
"Afternoon. What can I do you for, son?" The barber folded the newspaper he was scanning and gave him an easy smile. He gestured to a chair. He was older, probably old enough to be Connor's grandfather, and his eyes twinkled brightly. Connor sat down and awkwardly took off his baseball cap as the barber spread a cape over him.
"I had an accident helping my Uncle," He began. "It's some kind of new plumbers clay, but it's really dried to my hair. You have to help me!" The barber simply nodded, cool and professional, and looked him over.
"Son. I have to tell you straight. You’ve gotten that stuff in here pretty good. You're probably gonna be better off if I cut this mess a ways shorter and -"
"No!" Connor said instinctively. "I mean, that's not what I want."
"No?" The barber just looked vaguely bored. He leaned close to examine the mass of putty, frowning slightly at its stickiness. He ran a comb through Connor's lengthy hair and shook his head as the teeth tugged and pulled at the clingy mass.
"I just want you to save my hair anyway you can."
"Save it anyway I can?"
"Yes!" Connor was getting desperate now. The barber just nodded to himself and went back to the tools of his trade. This whole move had been one disaster after another. Connor knew it was bad enough he was actually looking forward to school starting tomorrow. He’d introduce himself, make a statement about who he was. It could still go according to plan.
He heard a click followed by a peculiar hum as the barber reapproached. The electric clippers traveled straight down the middle of his head, dead in between his upturned brows. Connor was too shocked to say anything. Strands of his long, blonde, hair fell from his head and tickled his nose. The barber just chuckled at the look on his face.
"That's...that's not..." Connor stammered.
"You said to 'save your hair anyway I could' and to speak realistically, this is the only way I could."
"You're lucky it wasn't all the way to the scalp up top here. Besides you're better off anyway, son. You really shouldn't let your hair grow this long."
The barber plucked a pair of scissors from his tray and deftly snipped the worst of the putty from the crown of Connor's head. More than a few freshly shorn strands clung to the mass, and the barber tossed it into a bin. He returned to the electric clippers and made a pass directly to the right of his first, and then straight up his sideburn. All Connor could do was sit and stare in shock it happened so quickly.
"How...how short is that?" Connor swallowed hard, his voice up an octave. His scalp prickled in the chill of the building air-conditioning, and he felt a breeze on his exposed ear. The clippers hummed smoothly in the same ear as though singing in reverence as to the demise of his hair. The sound made him want to squirm in his seat.
"Hm?" The barber raised an eyebrow, seemingly oblivious to Connor's inner turmoil as he went about his work. "This is just a number two. A quarter of an inch."
Connor must've staggered enough to prompt the barber to hold his head steady as he made a pass somewhere in the area between his ear and neck. A quarter of an inch?! Connor’s heart thudded in his ribcage. His hair had been nearly ten inches long!
"But now that I'm looking closer," The barber said. "I'll have to go a ways shorter on the back and sides. You've worn the putty closer to the scalp here." A finger, not unkindly, jabbed Connor's head where he couldn't see but knew it was where his hat rested and his head hit the seat of the car. The barber followed it up with a long pass up the back of his head from his nape to his crown. Falling hair brushed his neck.
The barber walked around him and took another pass from his forehead to his crown, snipping out the last of the putty as he went with his spare hand. Connor felt paralyzed as he watched the action in the mirror. Without thinking he automatically tilted his head at the barber's say-so and felt his other ear exposed to the air. The resulting clump of hair collided with his shoulder and down the slippery cape into his lap.
The hum of the clippers was ever present in his ear and sent a tingle from his shoulders and down his back. It threatened to invade his brain with their melodic tone. The barber finished his work at the back of Connor's head and that hypnotic hum temporarily ceased with a click. That click woke Connor up like a magician completing his act.
His long hair was gone; he had a buzzcut now. Connor's mind wheeled at the realization that part of his identity was gone. He'd had long hair for years! All the guys he hung out with back in his old neighborhood had had long hair. All the guys in the bands he listened to had long hair. All the professional skateboarders on his posters had long hair. Connor’s hair had been thick and now he could see the skin of his scalp understand the stubble atop his head. It was no longer the same color blonde, really, now shorn to his roots his hair looked almost bronze.
Was it his imagination or did his head feel lighter? Certainly his head felt cooler. The same line returned to the forefront of his thoughts: he no longer had long hair, he had a buzzcut. He practically didn't recognize the face in the mirror. It was like his fresh buzzcut had redrawn his face for him. Had his ears always stuck out a little? Was his jaw always hard like that? The same thoughts tumbled over and over in his mind.
"Alright son, you can relax," The barber clapped him twice on his caped shoulder, disrupting both another clump of hair and Connor's thoughts towards the ground. "That's the worst of it. Now for the fun part."
"Fun part?" Connor said, his voice quiet. Nothing about this was fun. Yet he still felt frozen in place to the chair.
"I still need to take the back shorter on account of the putty. Sides too, of course," The barber said, chuckling slightly. "Just need to know how short you want it."
Oh sure, Connor thought, now he was asking for his opinion! Like he had wanted any of this to begin with! He wanted to tell him to leave it, to get up and walk out and salvage all that was left of his identity. But, he didn't do any of that.
"How short do you think?" Connor asked instead. His voice sounded far away.
"Me? A number one might do it. Though to be safe you might want to go with a zero. That'll make it into a high-n-tight. You won't have to worry about any patches from the putty."
"Would that look…okay?" Connor asked.
"I think it’d suit your face of that's what you're asking."
"I'll do that, then." Connor said. He didn't know what he was doing. It was like his mouth had a mind of his own. More than anything he knew he wanted to hear the sound of the clippers one more time.
"No problem." The barber said half to himself, though there might've been a flicker of amusement on his lips. Connor had no idea what that meant for him but he was about to find out. The barber snapped the plastic guard totally off of the clippers and returned it to its brothers on the counter. With a definitive click the clippers warmed back to life and a shudder traveled down Connor's back.
The process began with Connor's left sideburn this time. Tiny hairs flew like sparks as the clippers glided towards his crown. This time, the barber took great care. He leaned close and, with a surgeon's precision, worked around from the left side of Connor's head to the right. The delicious hum of the clippers had abruptly become music to Connor's ears. He felt every movement, every brush of the barber's fingers, as the stubble on his head became no more than mere pinpricks. A slim guard reappeared at one point as the barber took a few final passes at the border between stubble and naught.
When it was finished Connor's face was once again redrawn. He looked older, but in that special way that youth do to wish themselves into their college years. A brush to the neck and then the cape was withdrawn, completing Connor's transformation into someone new. Someone that Connor was pretty sure he liked being. The plaid button-up and athletic shirt he wore underneath didn’t look so out of place on him anymore. In fact it looked like something he was naturally accustomed instead of the grungy clothes he was used to wearing.
"A hundred times better I'd say, son." The barber grinned. Connor, tentatively at first, reached up and ran his hand over the stubble atop his head. It was an alien sensation. But the alien sensation was an entirely welcome one. The light caught the very ends of the hair atop his head, making them shine slightly. His hair felt soft to the touch as he moved forward and prickly as he moved back towards his crown. He ran his hand back and forth a few more times. His heart thudded in his chest as he dipped from the stubble on top to the almost-smooth-but-rough backside of his head. The warmth of his body heat freely intermingled with the chilled air. He quickly swiveled his head side to side checking out his profile in the mirror. The newly exposed skin on the sides and back of his head looked a lighter tone.
"Wow...!" Was all Connor could muster. That reaction seemed plenty sufficient for the barber and he clapped him on the shoulder again.
"Definitely an improvement on that ole mop you'd sitting up there! I'll be damned if I knew why you boys let it get like that." He said. Connor could scarcely take his eyes away from his new hair, but forced himself to stand up. His joints felt stiff from sitting so tensely. Surrounding the chair was a perfect golden halo of long blonde hairs. Had all of that really been on his head just minutes before? It seemed wrong. Maybe he was still in a state of shock, Connor thought, maybe his hair wasn’t that short now. But he knew it was. What had the barber called it? A "high-n-tight". He repeated those words to himself inside his head.
"That’ll be eleven dollars, son." The barber said. Connor handed him the twenty that Uncle John had given him and held his hand up at the change.
"Keep it. Thank you for everything."
Now the barber smiled, nodding at Connor approvingly.
"Good man. I’ll be seeing you in two weeks, alright son." It was phrased as a question but Connor didn’t think of it that way. There was little chance of him wanting to grow his hair back out. Besides, it would take until the end of high school for it to even be remotely as long he thought. Better to skip the awkward growing out period entirely. He ran his hand once more over his head and shook his head in agreement. The barber winked and sent Connor on his way.
The late summer sun warmed his head in the same way the air conditioning cooled it. He took a breath of the fresh air. He couldn’t believe what had happened. He caught his reflection in a shop window as he walked back to the car. He imagined what it was going to be like walking into school the next morning with his new haircut and new clothes. What would people think of him? He’d still be the new guy, Connor knew, but maybe this time around it would be better to fit in rather than stand out. He looked the part now. Maybe blending in with the local guys would be just the fresh start that he needed. He thought about the baseball bat back in his room and wondered what the high school baseball team was like. Connor smiled. First impressions were everything, and this was one he was looking forward to giving.