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The Follower (Reformatted) by Kyle Shearing


The *CLACK* the clippers make when Nero turns them on is a lot louder than I'm expecting. Almost like a door slamming shut. I jump, just a little bit, in the barber chair. This only makes Dave's glare stronger, more pronounced. It's something I can feel. I honestly don't think I could get out of the chair if I tried.


The clippers race through the hair just in front of my ear, a lot faster than I expected. A lot faster than I'd want. The metal head is ice cold against the new skin of my scalp. That, too, surprises me. Though I don't jump this time. Dave's glare is holding me down.


My eyes flit over to my brother, Ellis, sitting in the waiting chair in-front of me. I feel silly even as I'm doing it, but a part of me hopes he'll save me, stop this from happening. But, of course, he's mostly why I'm here in the first place.




Dave: "Stahl ain't gonna save you. Oh s**t, he's gonna be "Stahl" now, too. Gonna hav'ta get a new name for ya, Ellis. Maybe you're "Big Stahl" and he's "Little Stahl." Or just "Little."



At this, Ellis just smiles, rubbing his knuckles under his nose like a boxer, mussing up the small blond mustache he wears now. And the whole time Nero is pushing the loud, cold clippers across the sides of my head. The hand that isn't holding the clippers is on top of my head, pushing it down towards the barber's chair. One after another, little clumps of hair collect in my lap, held up by the black barber's cape I'd been put under. The tufts hold together, like tiny red cotton balls. I want to reach out and touch one, hold it, crush it between my fingers, but I know Dave's watching, even if I can't see him. So I keep my hands on the arms of the barber chair like he told me.


Even if Nero's hand wasn't pushing my head lower, I'm not sure I could keep it up. The jet lag boils over me like a wave. Mom and Dad had said goodbye, but in a weird way where they were also hoping whoever I came back as was a different person. They were saying goodbye to me and also to who I was. It'd been one too many late nights out, one too many old beer bottles found in the garbage (not Dad's brand,) and the smell of cigarettes on my clothes in the laundry.


I'd said none of it was my idea, which was true, and they believed me. But that didn't undrink the beer or unsmoke the cigarettes or make me come home by 7. My Dad called me, "Another follower, just like Ellis." And he had had the same issues, back 4 years ago when he was my age. Following whatever his friends said they should all do. My Dad said, "Bullies can smell a follower from a mile away," and that the only answer is to get them as far apart as possible.


That's what they'd done with my brother, practically dragging him into the Army recruiter's office. When Ellis came back, the old version of him had died and been buried. The new Ellis Stahl was built like a brick wall, said, "Ma'am" and "Sir," and wore a Stetson cowboy hat. I'd heard him before I'd seen him, his heavy cowboy boots stomping across the hard-wood floors of our entryway.


The cowboy boots I'm now wearing slide down the barber chair's footrest, making a soft *SCUFF.* Even that small movement is enough to knock a ball or two of red hair down from the cape, onto the black leather of my new boots. Dave clears his throat, loudly, and I freeze solid like a statue.


Cowboy Ellis had come as a surprise to our whole family. I don't think I've ever even seen a horse in our small corner of Connecticut. And I was pretty sure there weren't any around the small military base Ellis was stationed at in upstate New York. But the luggage he'd brought when he visited held worn-in Wrangler jeans and pearl-snapped button up shirts and almost nothing else. The same was true of the two large brown paper bags currently sitting in the back of Ellis' blue Ford truck. Western-style shirts and jeans and even new white underwear briefs, all in my size.


Nero turns the clippers off, with another loud *CLACK,* and releases his grip on my head. Even this small move, lifting my head back up level, feels completely foreign. The 4 inches of thick red hair I'd been growing since summer are gone now, and my head bends in totally different way.


Without a second's hesitation, Dave grabs my chin. His fingers, stretching up across my cheeks, are tight to the bone. He moves my head to the left, then the right, then left again. With his other hand, he pushes two fingers up the skin around my ear, dragging them through the hair. I can hear the bristles scrape.



Dave: "This all needs to go."



I can hear Nero let out a small, soft sigh behind me.



Nero: "With someone his age, going so short from this long I don't usually take it all down, like yours, or the skin will be too white."



At this, Dave just shakes his head, jutting his bottom teeth up over his square black mustache.



Dave: "Not to worry. He don't mind. Do ya Little?"



I know this isn't really a question, or any sort of choice, so I stay silent. Dave grins and slaps me hard on the shoulder.


Dave: "Let's go up at least two fingers on the sides."


My eyes dart over to my brother again, for help or maybe even just clarification of the terms Dave is using, but he just smiles and shakes his head. When Mom and Dad had said I was going to be moving out with him, to live with him at his off-base apartment, I knew there were going to be some changes. New rules. New orders.


I was being shipped out to be "fixed." "Corrected." I'd been stepping out of line with the late parties and bad grades, and Ellis was expected to use his military training to square me up. But the most I'd expected was a stricter curfew. Maybe push-ups in the morning and running laps when I failed a test. I'd never thought it'd go this far. I'd never expected Dave.


Ellis had first mentioned him in a letter from boot camp, how he'd made a friend that was shipping out to the same military base. And when he'd finally come home to visit everything was Dave this and Dave that. He'd talked about how Dave had a big black Ford truck, and he was thinking of maybe getting one. So it wasn't a surprise when Ellis picked me up at the airport in his own blue Ford. But it was a surprise to see Dave there, too.


Nero snaps a new guide on the clippers, and out of the corner of my eye I catch that it's tight against the blade right before he glides them up the side of my head. Tiny bits of red hair spit out across the black cape, more hair than I even thought I had left. Nero's hand spreads over my head, his thumb pulling the skin up around my ears as he takes my hair even shorter. Shorter than I've ever had. Shorter than I'd ever imagined. At one point the clippers go up over the crown of my head, into the center on the very top of my scalp.


He palms my head around like a basketball, never letting off. Whatever sympathy he'd had for me before, trying to let me skate by with slightly longer hair, had now been overshadowed by the embarrassment he'd felt over being called out by Dave. Those clippers are replaced by a small pair that he pushes up the sides of my head and scoops away halfway up.


Nero: "What do you want with the top?"


The barber doesn't even pretend to be asking me. His question is directed right to Dave, who has been standing straight in-front of me the entire time. He bends his hand into a claw, dragging his fingernails through what's left of my hair on top.



Dave: "He's gonna be a flattop boy from now on."



Nero doesn't ask anything else. He just slaps on a large blue clipper guide and aims straight down the center of my head. For some stupid reason I pull my head back, trying to delay the inevitable, I guess. Nero's hand wraps around the back of my head, with a vice-like grip, and plows through the curls I have on top. A shower of hair pours down in-front of me, the strands letting out a small whine as they squeak down the cape.


I watch as my brother pulls his hand through his own blond flattop, cut to match Dave's black one. When they'd walked into the western clothing store they'd both taken off their cowboy hats the second they hit the door, like there was a force-field there that knocked them off. One hand holding the cowboy hat, the other dragged across their flattops, making sure every hair was standing at attention. They'd done the exact same thing when they walked into the barbershop, synchronized like it was a dance.


Nero's buzzing my hair like a man possessed. Like he's got something to prove. Even when there's no more hair falling down he's still going over my head, again and again, back and forward, side to side. Not a single hair will be left long. He, and Dave, will make sure.


A fat cloud of shaving cream is carried over on Nero's hand from a machine on the other side of the shop. He smears it through my hair, making sure every single one is covered, and then starts up a hair dryer. Hot hair blasts over my face, then ice cold, blowing over the exposed skin on my sides in a way I've never felt before. He takes a heavy square brush and starts dragging it over my head. Every bristle of it stabs into my head like a knife. He won't stop. Again and again, pulling it back, digging it into my scalp, again and again, ripping my head backwards into the headrest, my neck almost 90 degrees.


Finally he relents. I bring my head up, eyes blinking, dazed, swimming. It feels like he tore my scalp clean off. I can feel my entire head tingling, the raw skin puckering in the cold breeze of the air conditioner.


I shift my weight, readjusting my body in the chair, and feel my jeans push against the metal sides of the chair. When I push my boots down to scoot back up my feet don't even feel like my feet anymore.


I'd noticed the same feeling when Dave pushed them up onto my feet at the store. All the other clothes had been handed over the dressing room's curtain partition, one by one, cowboy-style jeans and western shirts just like Dave and Ellis were wearing. An opened bag of white briefs were tossed over just the same, along with some tube socks.


But he put the boots on me in an open area in the center of the store, a small clearing surrounded by several racks of clearance items. They'd made a *THUMP* as the tight black leather sucked onto my socks. My toes could barely move, stuck in the restricted space inside. It was like my feet *became* boots, with no articulation or movement of their own. Dave had pulled down the legs of the rigid cowboy jeans, also a new restriction, over the boots so that only black triangles poked out. Then it was an aggressive slap on the back and Dave and Ellis laughing as I tried to figure out how to walk with new feet.


A long and square grey metal comb drops into view in-front of me and is pulled through my hair. It feels completely different from when Dave had dragged his hands through. I can tell there's almost nothing left. And now Nero is going to take it even shorter?


As he slides the clippers over I can hear every individual tooth of the comb *PING* against the bare clipper blades. There's the tightness of the comb stuck through my hair and then the release after the cut, as another ball of my hair wafts down to my lap. He moves my head to the side, with two hands, with probably more force than is necessary, and slides the comb across my head. I'm looking right at Ellis as Nero shapes my hair into a small flat square, looking at the same haircut on my brother.


It's only now that I realize two things. One, this is a haircut that will not be moved, changed, styled. It is a signpost on my head that says someone decided I would have this one style, look this one way, and wanted to make sure I couldn't change it. And two, I realize this probably won't be my only trip to the barber. This is a haircut that will become a part of me, whether I like it or not.


My head is positioned and re-positioned, as more hair is cut off. Nero rubs gel in, this time, thick and cold, and then the hair dryer and his awful brush, ripping through my scalp. And then even more cutting. Finally he steps back. Dave comes closer and inspects every inch of it. He rubs his thumb over my chin, over the small bits of stubble I was excitedly growing, and declares, "This trash goes too."


In an instant I'm falling backwards, lying flat in the barber chair staring up at the ceiling. I'm waiting for something, anything, whatever comes next, my whole body tense. A small part of me thinks maybe I could jump up, run out, run all the way back to Connecticut and my old life.


A small white towel floats into view over me, belching out large clouds of steam. Nero wraps it tight around my face like a bandage, the unbelievable heat scalding the skin on my face and the raw new skin along the sides of my head. I feel my toes curl up in the small space they have in the boots, as my whole body bends into itself. I'm left to sit in shock and a not small amount of pain for what feels like forever. That towel is removed, finally cooled, and a new towel, somehow hotter than the first, is wrapped around me in its place. Then warm, not hot, lather is smeared over everywhere. Nero appears before me with the sharpest, scariest razor I've ever seen and suggests I try and stay still.


Surprisingly, another towel is wrapped around my head. By this point I'd assumed I didn't even have nerve endings left in my face but it burns all the same. I hear Dave say, "I'll be right back," as his boots clomp out over the barber shop's hard tile. Just as quickly, he's back, and waiting behind me as the barber swings me up and turns the chair toward the mirror.


I don't look like me. I look like someone else. And I'm just now realizing that that is probably the point. When I move my head to the side the hair stays immobile, carved out of my head like marble. Just like my brothers, just like Dave's, but light red, making a small red cap of hair on top. Dave rubs his hand through it, across the short sharp brush bristles that now make up my hair.



Dave: "Now that looks like a nice, clean-cut young man that no cool kid would ever wanna talk to. They'll figure you'd tell on 'em. You're a square now, Little."



When I stand up I feel my legs bow out under me. I'd thought walking in boots had been hard enough, but now my whole bottom half felt like Jell-O. Dave's hands are under my arm pits and he pulls me up, saying, "S**tkickers don't fall." He spins me around so I'm facing him and turns back toward where my brother is sitting. I can see he has something in his hands but before I can make it out it's already suctioned onto my head.


The stiff waxed straw of the cowboy hat holds tight to my head, pushing against it like a glove. The pointed ends of my hair graze against the inside top reminding me that I have a very short flattop with every move of my head.



Dave: "Ordered it a size smaller, since you got a smaller head now. And I expect to see you wearing it every day."



How would Dave know what I was wearing everyday? Even this small thought feels like something I shouldn't say, so I keep my mouth shut. My brother slides his cowboy hat on and follows behind us as Dave walks me out the door.



**********



The next morning had been a whirl-wind, Ellis spreading wax from a stick on a large black brush, just like Nero's, and telling me I was expected to do this every morning. When I came out of the bathroom I saw he'd already set out my clothes for me, each piece more cowboy than the last. Red button-up shirt, jeans and boots, even the hat is set down on the bed roughly where my head would be, above the shirt. He didn't tell me where all my old clothes that I'd brought with me had gone, and I didn't ask.


As we pull up to the school in my brother's truck, I'm hesitating. My hand rests on the door handle, looking at the waves of other kids walking up the sidewalk. Not a single one in cowboy clothes. Ellis puts his hand on my shoulder, a lot softer than Dave had.



Ellis: "You'll get used to it. You will."



I lean down to pick up my backpack, unsure what to say. He locks eyes with me, so I know when he says this he means it to be comforting:



Ellis: "I mean, I did. I got used to it. Just like Dave said I would."



**********


Ellis had told me, right as I was closing his truck door, that Dave had put my school schedule together for me, and to remember to thank him for all he's done for me. And again, I think, how would Dave have the ability to do that?


I walk to my first period class using the map on the back of the schedule. Army Junior ROTC, chosen for me by Dave. When I walk in there's only 12 or 13 other students, each doing some small task to get the room ready, writing the date on the chalkboard or cleaning the desks with a spray-bottle and paper towels. No one thinks to look up at me, which is a relief since no one is wearing anything close to the cowboy outfit I'm wearing. At least a couple of the boys look like they have hair almost as short as mine. A small comfort.


I hear a familiar voice behind me, booming across the white walls of the classroom.



Dave: "ATTEEENN-TION!"



I turn to see him blow through the doors, in a a green military dress uniform and shiny black shoes. He removes the black triangle-shaped hat from his head and rubs his palm across the tight bristles of his flattop. Reflexively, without thinking, I take off my cowboy hat and do the same.



Dave: "We got a new recruit with us today. Kyle Stahl. A fresh fish."



He grins at me, big and wide, his eyes going right through me.



Dave: "But don't worry. He knows how to follow orders."





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