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The Wayward Son by Armando94


The Wayward Son

Angelo sat there in his chair, newspaper in front of him, a little before ten o’clock in the morning at this point. It was a Friday, fairly routine kind of day. Angelo’s shop was located a few blocks away from the train. Perfect traffic coming and going for those who worked in city but lived out here in the suburbs. Angelo specifically opened his shop on the earlier side because of this, even during the weekdays you’d see the lights on and the pole spinning around seven, get a few customers in. And if you were a long-time loyal customer, all you’d need to do was ask Angelo if he’d open even earlier than that and he’d most definitely be there. After all, his apartment was right above the shop.

"MichaelAngelo Barber Shop" was actually the name of the business. Michael after his father, Angelo after himself. But his dear old father was long dead now, Michael himself already in his late sixties. Taking over the family business which always had an apartment up above that his father Michael purposely bought along with the shop below years ago. Renting out the above until Angelo came of age and married, giving him the chance for it to become his own place. An easy commute, and more insentive for him to stay in the family business. But Angelo always wanted to be a barber, it seems like most their relatives from back in Italy had been barbers as well. Only natural the immigrants in America would do the same. He was second generation and wasn’t going to break that tradition.

But there was some fear he would unintentionally break it. His now late wife Maria and him married before they were thirty, but struggled for years to conceive, even so much as feeling like all hope had been lost. Until finally, after all those years of trying, Maria found herself pregnant and eventually gave birth to their only child, a son, which they dutifully named Michael after his grandfather. In the hopes too, that one day, he might take over the family business as well, and keep the tradition going. Angelo and Maria surely spoiled their son though, a good son he was though. Didn’t turn out like a brat in the end. Played sports, served as an altar boy, was a captain in high school and made honors. Young Michael didn’t really know what he wanted out of life, besides following the family tradition of becoming a barber. But he craved a little bit more than that, only just for a little while

When he came to his parents and explained he was going to enlist after high school, they did not object. In fact, both Angelo and Maria felt they should take pride in their son wanting to go into the army. Young Michael even said he would do this and then after serving his country a good while, come home and work and manage the family business. Angelo and Maria were so astonished with this decision, they didn’t refuse. Even if it meant their son would be away from them.

A friend of Angelo’s came into the shop suddenly, with not much to do other than hangout and get a trim like usual. Angelo caped him up and took out his scissors, and began to go to town. "How is everything at home, George?"

"Its alright, which is better than bad I suppose," George sighed. "I really am seeing how much of a toll this all takes on the family, and not just the person inflicted."

"How is Regina holding up?"

"She’s alright," George sighed some more. "You know she’d never frown. Had to bring her into the city the other day for some more tests. The doctors monitoring it are the best, you were right about that. Not much change in her case, more of the same."

It appears that both these men’s wives would suffer from terminal cancer. Regina, George’s wife, was fairing alright for the past year she’d been undergoing treatments and therapies. Unfortunately, Angelo had lost Maria about five years ago. The cancer came fast, and it took her even faster if that were possible.

"She’ll be alright," Angelo tried to cheer his friend up. Then they switched topics as Angelo continued to trim off the stark white hair of his friend to the perfect Cesar cut he sported. Luckily for Angelo, his hair had only grayed or partially remained dark to its roots. But the white on George looked alright.

"Take it easy, I’ll see you Sunday at mass," George said as he left Angelo alone in the shop.

Angelo looked in the mirror, at the creases and wrinkles on his face, or at least what he felt like he saw. He had been to war, not like his wife or his son. But because of both of them, he endured their inflictions as well. Losing his wife, that was tough. Possibly harder that time went on because it all happened so fast that Angelo didn’t have time to process that much. It was worse on Young Michael, who came home for the funeral, having thought there would be more time for him to see his mother as she had treatment done over a period of time. Angelo and Michael would then only have a couple visits each year with each other thereafter, the empty void of the woman they both loved felt on both parties.

And then, the unthinkable happened. The son Michael was shot down out East. They paint it real well in books and pictures, what happens when a parent of a fallen soldier is delivered the saddest news ever. This was a year ago now. And what Angelo thought he’d never to be able to get over with with Maria, it was just as hard if not harder when it came to his son. His pride and joy, his legacy. His everything really. He cursed himself silently at night, most nights. Why hadn’t he convinced Michael to come home, to hang up his uniform? He’d already done his service, they would discharge him if he wanted or let him go. He wasn’t some high ranking brigadier general. Just a soldier on the battlefield at the end of the day, another casualty fighting for those that could not. But Michael was proud of his military career, the service he could do for his country. Angelo couldn’t take that from him. What was that to say then that Michael would have even stayed more than a few years as a barber? Find himself a woman and get married and run off together, leave the hometown behind because he really didn’t want to be here and he was forced back by his old man? And then what, lose all contact?

Perhaps the lost of contact through life and death was much easier. Even a year later, it might have been what’s best, in case Michael ever resented his father. All Angelo wanted to for him was to be home and safe. They would eat breakfast together, work in the shop together, clean up together. Angelo would get to teach his son the tricks of the old trade. And he’d have his family home, the bit of it he still had left. Now it was just him in this town, siblings and nieces and nephews and more and more strewn out all across the entire tri-state area. Just Angelo, running the old business, keeping to himself in this small town where everyone did look out for each other. But there was still something Angelo was missing, something he wish he could fill the void with…

-----

Nick peeked his head around the corner, then quickly turned back. He didn’t want to be seen, no, he couldn’t be seen. He wasn’t going to let these guys chase him down again. Although he knew he owed them money. But he’d just gotten out on another bail, nearly thirty and he had quite the criminal record. Never having a good support at home, an abusive father and an alcoholic mother, and siblings who shared no love for each other. Nick never tried at school so it was natural after high school he didn’t do much with his life anyways. A few retail jobs here and there, until he got let go from them for never paying attention and always being on his phone. Then attempts at being a kitchen fryer but that didn’t stick considering he rarely had a home-cooked meal growing up. So it was always to the streets and getting caught up in messes there

But this time, Nick needed to get out, and really get out. He needed to get out of this urban setting, go somewhere else, didn’t even have to be super far away. Just away from here, especially before one of the different gangs after him saw him.

He rubbed his cold hand against his cheek, feeling his heavy five o’clock shadow. Matting down his mussed up hair with the opposite hand, some loose sprigs of hair and curls stick up here and there. He was usually fairly good about keeping a clean and sharp appearance, when he wasn’t in and out of jail. Nick was always trying to give the impression he was better than others, considering growing up he was always made to feel like he was less than scum.

The coast was clear now from what he could tell, and there was a train coming through on the platform, maybe he ought to just hop on it and see how far it could take him. He shoved the gold cross around his neck into his shirt, and zipped up his coat real tight, pants covered with what looked like sawdust but who really knew what it was at this point. His sneakers were super clean though, the police had kept them in a plastic bag after all. He had all his personal belongings on him, a wallet with not much in it and his cellphone that rarely got actual use compared to all the burners he typically used. None of those were on him, not if he was trying to make it out of town. Maybe he didn’t even need his personal phone anyways, just in case someone tried tracking him from that.

The train doors open and Nick slinked on, without a ticket. He’d hold onto his phone for now, pretend that he had his train ticket on it to fool the conductor. He just needed to make it a few stops. Nick was done with this place, he needed to be rid of it. Rid himself of all of it. Turn on its back and never return, no one wanted him here anyways in the first place. Why bother sticking around. He’d be better off trying to make it somewhere else, even if he had nothing to make it with. No skills, no support, no self-confidence.

And as luck would have it for the first time in Nick’s life, he was able to make it quite a few stops until finally a conductor came along. How had they made it this far without being told to take their tickets out? This shocked even Nick. Someone was watching over him, but who? The conductor was coming around to him and as soon as he said, "Ticket," to Nick’s face, he replied:

"Its on my phone, hold on a sec…"

"Off,"

"What?!"

The conductor picked Nick up by the shoulder and stated through closed teeth, "Hope you enjoyed your free ride, pretty boy. Your stop is next I believe," he shoved Nick up against one of the train doors as his eye was glued to the window and he could see them coming into another station.

They really had made it pretty far, Nick wasn’t sure how that could be, whoever his guardian angel was. They were nearly thirty minutes away by car from where he started. He knew he had no choice now, and it seemed like luck was working in Nick’s favor once again. It wasn’t like the conductor was getting him off the train and having him arrested, he was just having him get off. So the moment that the train doors opened, Nick swiftly but not over eagerly stepped off the platform, "Thank you sir," he called back to the conductor, and surprised himself. What the heck?! When was Nick ever polite to anyone, especially a superior?! There was definitely something in the air, couldn’t say there was something in Nick’s morning coffee this Friday because he’d had none. Perhaps it was the change of venue and abandonment of the old that was causing Nick’s impulses to slightly change. He had been lucky twice so far, how much longer would this carry on for? He wasn’t sure.

A fair amount of other people stepped off the train too at this time, after two in the afternoon at this point. Everettsfield, he’d never been to this town before. Heard of it for sure, but never been. There were shops and stores, nothing more than five stories high. It seemed like a picturesque town, which strangely made Nick feel at home. God, what were these feelings and sensations over coming him? Did his big flee really cause all this internal change already? Why on earth was he being such a….a mush?!

He shook his head and kept walking, although he really didn’t know where he was walking to. He was poking his head at windows from the outside, some coffee shops and restaurants with a few people still patronizing at this time of day. He had a bit of money on himself, but he still wasn’t all that hungry to be honest. After everything he’d been through, food was the last thing on his mind for once. It was more about survival, blending in, not being caught.

And at that exact moment is when the blue and red and white colors swirling before him came into vision. The signature sign of a barbershop. He’d found himself on this little side street, then looking up and seeing a sign that read "MichaelAngelo Barber Shop". The huge pane windows across the front giving you a full view of the two-chair shop, with one lone barber sitting there reading the newspaper in the first chair. Did the man even have the lights on? It looked awfully dark in there from the outside view. Maybe he hadn’t cleaned the windows?

But there he was, the barber, sitting there in his smock, slacks and dress shoes, newspaper held out in front of him. Nick thought maybe he had on some light jazz or blues music playing in the background. Not that Nick had ever listened to any genre like that before of music. Again, why was he having these thoughts? These tender, soft, kind-hearted thoughts. This wasn’t like him at all. Nick was always bad: scams, late night parties, sell drugs, get busted, beat people up, the whole nine yards. These new emotions were slowly trickling over him since he made that decision to step on that train earlier.

And now, his hand reached out for the door to his left, the twinkling sound of a bell as he slightly pulled the door out towards him, allowing space for him to slide on in…

-----

The bell was always like an alarm, especially when Angelo wasn’t paying attention to the world outside him. And in this particular case, that couldn’t be any more true. He had zoned into his newspaper of the day to try and distract himself. He had been farely busy from 11:30 on until a little bit ago, the lunch crowds you could say. Men who worked in the area or worked from home. Coming in for their cuts from Angelo. He could always count on that, especially on a Friday. It must have tired him out though because that bell’s jingle was like a snap back into reality.

Angelo flinched a bit and then looked over his shoulder to see the intruder. Maybe he shouldn’t say intruder, but the sight of this young man certainly gave him a bit of that impression, like he might come at him with a knife or gun and ask for all the money in the register. And Angelo typically dealt with a lot of cash-paying customers (not to include the tips in his pockets!). A prime suspect to rob actually. The young man was nearing six feet tall, probably was an inch or two taller than Angelo’s late son Michael. He had to try and distract himself from thinking about him too much, but he couldn’t. Especially now, as he looked at this stranger, all he thought of was Michael.

This young man was probably his age, and while he had a more lanky figure than Michael’s build did, their faces were similar, quite the same head shape if Angelo had to guess. This boy had tanner skin however, maybe he spent more time outside. And he had quite the bit of scruff, Michael hardly ever showed facial hair. This boy also was dressed like he had been picked out of a dumpster. Michael would never dress this sloppy or dirty. Always dressed to impress, whether it was an army uniform or for the ladies at school or church.

But Angelo should not judge. This boy was not his Michael. In fact, he did not know this boy’s name. Where he came from, what his homelife had been life, in fact what his recent life had been like. Judging by the outward appearance, it could not have been that good.

Angelo stood from his chair suddenly, jolting the boy back in the doorway, "How may I help you, young man?"

The boy stood there for a brief moment. Not saying anything. Then he said, "You’re all alone in here?"

Angelo looked at him quizzically, "Yes, just me that works here."

The boy nodded his head, then pointed to the few waiting chairs against the one wall, "Mind if I keep you company? I have nowhere else to be."

Well this was awfully odd. Angelo didn’t know what to say other than, "Please," as he ushered his hands to those chairs, and put his newspaper down.

The young man took a seat, hunched over a bit, looking at the ground. Then looking up around at the walls, all covered in barber memorabilia and old family photos from back in Italy from those barber days. There were also a few vintage mirrors hanging on the wall, not as big of course as the ones that were wall size for the two barber chairs. Angelo kept his focus on the strange young man until he finally said, "I haven’t seen you here before, or around town."

"Nope," the boy said, not making eye contact.

"You not from around here?"

"Nope," he answered again.

This young man definitely had a tiny bit of child-like manners. He definitely had not been raised well. Or at the very least, not had the right role models to lean on. This made Angelo feel like he should stop judging him. "Visiting family here?"

"Can I be honest, man?"

Angelo was startled by the bluntness. But he simply nodded, "Go on."

The boy shook his head, "I actually hopped a random train and just sort of ended up here. I had no destination in mind other than to leave behind where I’d been my whole life. There was no leaving it and only more getting sucked back in. I’d done a lot of bad stuff in my time, stuff I shouldn’t have been proud of."

Angelo noticed the crucifix peeking out of the boy’s collar. "I see."

"So I just said ‘Screw it’, after my most recent fu--, mess up, I mean, sorry man," he corrected himself quickly. "I had to get out of there, so I just left. I didn’t have to worry about having anything with me, I don’t have much to begin with in the first place. And I just don’t want to go back, ever again. So that’s how I ended up here."

"And you chose Everettsville because…?"

"Well," the young man laughed, "I didn’t. The conductor did, I sort of snuck on the train without a ticket."

Old habits die hard, Angelo supposed. He sighed and said, "Well, that wasn’t technically right of you to do, young man. But," he sighed some more. "if you needed to get out of your previous environment, well, I hope you keep to your promise. Ain’t nothing worse than a liar, a cheat, a thief, a crook, any of it. Especially in this town. We do not tolerate that kind of behavior, you understand? So if you’re gonna be staying here, then I’d ask you to respect it, understand?"

Finally he looked Angelo dead in the eyes. Wide eyes, and a chocolate brown just like Michael had. Even the way his eyelids sunk in, down to his cheekbones, his structure was almost like a clone to how Michael looked. It really scared Angelo, but he had to brave face, not flinch at this kid.

"I’m Nick," the boy finally said.

Angelo nodded his head, "Nice to meet you, Nick. I’m Angelo, how do you do," the barber stuck his hand out to the boy across from him. Nick went to shake it from his seat but Angelo instinctively moved his hand backwards, chastising, "Nah, ah, ah you don’t. You stand tall, stand up now son," Angelo commanded and Nick followed. "You stand up, look me square in the eyes, give a nice, firm hand shake and say, ‘Very well sir, thank you. How about yourself?’ okay?"

Nick shook his hand back. For as tall and lanky as the kid appeared, his grip was strong without a doubt. "Very well sir, thank you. How about yourself?" he mocked.

"I’m just fine," Angelo shook back. "Well, Nick, since you’re already here, and doesn’t seem like I have anyone here at the moment, why don’t I treat you?"

"To what?" Nick asked foolishly.

"A haircut, son?"

"Oh," Nick shook his head, "Duh, knew that. Uhm….s-sure. Why not," he followed the barber to the chair.

"That’s it son, take a seat now, will get you nice and cleaned up. What do you say?"

"Nothing too dramatic," Nick stated. "Maybe just a trim around the sides, cut off some of these loose curls, clean it up nice and sharp, square off in the back?"

"Alright, the works then," Angelo said as he caped him. "And how about I throw in a nice hot towel shave? Ever had one of those before?"

"I’ve gotten lined-up before," Nick said. He looked further at himself in the mirror and then shook his head saying. "Yeah, if you’re offering let’s do it. Clean off this old mess," his right hand caressed under his chin, making that scrappy scruffy noise it should.

"Sounds good to me, we’ll see you’re whole face then," Angelo tightened up the cape and then decided to get to work. "But first, let’s wash out your hair first, I’m sure you could use that, right?"

"Most definitely," Nick laughed and relaxed into the chair. Angelo spun the chair and his client around, backwards so that he could put his head into the sink. Angelo turned on the faucet and began to run it over Nick’s head, fishing his fingers through the boy’s dark tresses. Then applying some shampoo and conditioner, he almost swore he saw a soft smile appear across Nick’s face as he was getting cleaned up and pampered. Angelo bet Nick had never been treated this well before by anyone. He eventually turned the faucet off, grabbed a drying towel and then wrapped Nick’s head up in it before spinning him around and back up in the chair, facing the mirror once more. Angelo toweled off his client’s head and when he felt he’d done enough, released the white cloth to reveal his client’s mop.

"Glad you’ll be fixing that soon," the cheeky client commented at his hair in disarray. Angelo smirked and laughed back. As he looked at both of them in the mirror, he couldn’t help but still think of the strange similarities between this Nick and his Michael.

Angelo grabbed a comb and began to sift through Nick’s hair, sectioning it off here and there a bit before grabbing with comb and fingers the parts he’d slice off from the rest. Giving the boy a more even and clean cut like he was a business man. The damp hair flicked onto the cape in bits or loose strays found them self along Angelo’s fingers as he began Nick’s trim. He did have nice thick hair this young man, no wonder it curled at the ends. Angelo wondered if Michael would have been the same way, had he ever let his son’s hair get out of shape. Angelo continued with the trimming business, deciding to tell Nick a little bit about the town that he was passing through. Fine tuning bits here and there across Nick’s head that hadn’t been attended to properly Angelo found. He was barely looking up from his work and at his client in the mirror that Angelo was lost in thought as he was cutting Nick’s hair, starting to use the trimmer around his ears and neck to clean up with a comb along the edges and the hair itself. The less he looked at the client and just focused on the back of his head, Angelo felt like he was cutting his son’s hair again. Even if the voice talking back to him was different, it was especially in the moments when Angelo was droaning on about the town that he felt like he was cutting Michael’s hair again, like he was home from his service and had never passed.

Once the hair had been cleaned up all around and Angelo had combed it off a bit to the side, no hard part though, just a gentle wave to the hair, swooped over on one side at the top so it didn’t lay flat across Nick’s forehead. Angelo looked in the mirror with Nick and said, "What do ya think so far?"

Nick nodded his head, eyes wide with a funny face, "I look really cleaned up."

"Not so fast, sport," Angelo put his hand on one of Nick’s shoulders. "You forgot what I promised you."

"Oh yes," Nick bobbed his head up and down. "Don’t get any funny ideas."

"No promises," Angelo joked back and he heard Nick from behind as the barber began to prepare his tools and supplies. He turned on the foaming machine to warm up the lather, and grabbed one of the hot towels. He came back to the chair and pumped Nick up and then laid him horizontal, laying a tissue paper across his chest. Then he placed a towel around his face and started to massage Nick’s face in, opening up the pores. Angelo swore he heard the client moan under the towel. No shock there, what guy wouldn’t after being treated to this? And this was just the beginning.

Angelo returned again with the lather and started to wipe it all over Nick’s face. Then he took the straight razor out of his shirt pocket and slowly and carefully began to scrape away at Nick’s left cheek. Swipe down, flick back up, clean off the razor on the tissue paper. My god, could these things really pick up hair! Amidst all the foam it was plain to Angelo that he really got a good scraping out of Nick. He looked at the boy’s cheek that was partially bare now. Angelo shook his head and knew they would need to make this a double shave. The young man really had dark facial hair, the kind that with five o’clock shadow has almost a distinct smell of its own.

Angelo carried on with the shave, and then another round of towels to open up the pores some more, before he went in for a second round of shaving now against the grain. This time he saw he was really cleaning up the face, it even made him smile a bit. Then it was another towel to the face, this time not a hot one, a cool one with some mixtures that were a family secret. That caught Nick’s attention and he said, "What’s that scent, Angelo?"

"Can’t tell ya, it’s a secret"

"Ugh, fine. It smells amazing, sir."

"Good, I’m glad." After this towel, then some tonic and lotion applied to the face, Angelo sat the chair back up and said to his client, "You can open your eyes again, son."

When Nick did, his eyes bugged out yet again at the sight before him, and Angelo did just about the same. Nick’s hands reached out from under the cape and felt his cheeks, he laughed and said, "Don’t think I’ve seen my cheeks this bare in nearly a decade."

"Is that so," Angelo managed to get out of his mouth, while once again being distracted at the sight before him. Without the scruff now, there was no denying it. It was like Nick could have been Michael’s long lost twin or something. This was beyond eerie, so much so Angelo had to look away and distract himself, picking up a small pair of clippers and cleaning up yet again around Nick’s edges in the back and sides.

"Something’s bothering you, sir," Nick spotted. "What’s wrong?"

How did this kid notice? Maybe because he knew what it meant to feel lost or alone, he could spot it in someone else. Angelo sighed and said, "Its just…you remind me of my son. You look just like him."

"Huh, that’s funny," Nick commented. "Is he a barber too?"

"No," Angelo shook his head. "He could have been, maybe one day. He was in the army, served a good while. But he actually died a year ago in an incident out East."

"Oh no," Nick’s eyes closed. "I’m so sorry, Angelo, I wouldn’t have asked—"

"Not your fault, you had no idea," Angelo tried to dissuade.

"I bet you used to give him really good haircuts, sir."

Angelo nodded his head. "Always, always made sure my son looked sharp. All the way from grade school to high school. And then even when he was on loan home from the service. By then he was trying every kind of military haircut you could think of," Angelo laughed and shook his head. "Its like you could have been his twin or something."

"I’m sorry, again, sir, for your loss."

When Angelo was all finished, and released Nick from the chair, going into his back pocket for his wallet to pay, Angelo waved him off. "On the house."

"But sir—"

"Don’t sweat it, it’s the least I can do," Angelo said, looking up at Nick with wet eyes. He suddenly felt his hand reach forward and touch the side of Nick’s head. "It was like having Michael for one more afternoon."

"I’m sorry again sir, I wish there was something I could do…not that there is."

"Thank you, Nick. You’ve helped enough. It’s a part of grieving the ones you love and lost, you will learn some day I am sure. I know I won’t ever get to see my boy come through the door again saying, ‘Pops, I’m home!’, those days are long gone. But I hold on to them, and cherish them still."

They shook hands one more time, and as Angelo returned to his chair, he saw out of the mirror reflection Nick looking back, and then almost as if Nick was about to say something else, before turning around, the jingle of the bell, and the stranger was gone.

-----

Since Nick didn’t have to pay for the haircut, he still had some cash in his wallet. So he figured maybe it was time he ate something. His stomach would eventually thank him. Although, he really needed to think about how he was going to start saving the little money he had, but nourishment was important and he needed a distraction after the last hour he spent with Angelo. He found a diner, probably the most popular one in town, sat down at a booth by himself and ordered a coffee and water, as well as one of those deluxe breakfast combo deals that’s real cheap and practically three meals. That would tie him over, warm up his belly, wherever he stayed tonight. At least now he looked more cleaned up with his fresh trim and beard shave. It was strange, seeing no five o’clock shadow, as he gazed in the reflection of the napkins dispenser and sugar shaker top.

The coffee was free refills, as was the water, and there really wasn’t that much business in and out on this Friday afternoon. Not many even coming in for the early bird special, but maybe that would be later. Nick looked around at the picture frames and other framed memorabilia around the diner, when his waitress came around and said, "Looking for your name?"

"What? No…I’m not from here."

"Ah, thought you were familiar, my mistake, you passing through?"

Nick shrugged, with his hands around his mug, "Something like that."

"Well, we’ve got a few old time things all over the place, mostly for notable people in town. Dating all the way back and then up to the last few years," she cleared the booth over from him. She must have been a townie, she was easily in her fifties. "You can feel free to look around, no one’s gonna bother you, honey."

"Thanks," Nick nodded. He stood up a few moments later and started to look around. Wow, she wasn’t kidding, it did go back a while. Old sports teams in black and white photos, state championship plaques, so many newsprint articles plastered here there and everywhere that you would think this was a printing press and not a diner. Everyone in these photos looked so happy though, it brought an authentic smile to Nick’s face. That same sappy feeling he’d started to have ever since he arrived here.

Then his eyes were totally struck by one section of a wall he came across. It looked like a younger version of himself, but he knew it wasn’t. In fact, he knew exactly who it was. In the center were three larger photos, one a kindergarten portrait, then a senior portrait, and then a military portrait, perhaps not too long before his tragic passing.

It was Michael. His name printed under these three photos, with his birth date and passing date. It now really struck Nick.

There was a collage around these main photos, so many other photos cut up of different sizes. Photos of Michael and his friends, from here and from his service days. Him playing school ball, being captain and homecoming king. Even photos of him and his parents, Nick recognized that was Angelo even if the photo was a decade plus old. That must have been his wife, Maria, who he briefly mentioned earlier as well. A photo of them all outside the barbershop as well, just a hint of their apartment right above in the frame of the shot. What struck Nick most in all these photos was the energy Michael gave off in most these photos, especially the candid ones. He was a happy kid, always smiling, making others laugh, a contagious happy-go-lucky boy. There was no questioning why Angelo missed him so much, perhaps why the town might even miss him so much.

The emotions overcame Nick in that moment, and he rushed to his booth and threw down a couple of twenties, the waitress catching this, and Nick quickly saying, with a nearly closed throat, "Keep it."

Nick then found himself outside and around the bend of the diner, body up against the cold stone wall. He sunk down to the ground, held his face in his hands. Seeing those memories of Michael, hearing about him from his father…the strangest feeling came over Nick. One that he never thought he could feel, wondered if it was okay to feel this. Nick didn’t want to live, after all the trouble he’d caused in his life. How and why in fact was he still here, when a kid like Michael had to be taken out of the world? Why did the Golden Boy have to go and not the Forgotten Boy? Nick started punching the ground with one hand out of fury, fury over everything he had ever done. Today was a wake up call, every moment of it. Nick needed to start anew, he needed to do good. No more of his past, jeez he wanted to erase it if he could. Start over, completely. Maybe this town would be the right start, or at least the people here could help him.

He finally picked himself up off the ground and started to walk around, it was getting a little dark out. Maybe more people would start showing up around these parts. There were still a fair amount of stores open, and one he saw glistening in autumn gold a block up. He followed that light and saw it was an old consignment and antique store. Of course they had one of these here. In a town like this, why not? Probably the mayor’s family owned it. Nick found his feet and kept pace to reach the storefront.

Once inside, it was like being in a movie. Junk and goodies in every possible space, crammed together. Furniture, toys, you name it. He wasn’t too sure what he was looking for, just browsing, until he got to the back where all the clothes were. Thankfully there was a fair amount of men’s stuff much to his surprise. He was sifting through a few hangers when he came across all these vintage clothes. They were actually pretty nice, the coats and jackets, the material and weight. He understood they might be out of style but Nick found them rather nice. He’d never worn things like this before and yet he was feeling pulled to them.

Then his hand traced over a few different sets of clothes. Different uniforms, one for a pilot, then different ranks of a naval officer from plebe to head. And then he found the army uniforms. All different ones here as well. Ones for in combat, ones for off duty. Beautifully made, and perhaps once beautifully worn.

That was when the idea went off in his head.

Nick picked up the best one he thought they had of the army suits. A good jacket of that dark green, with a brown button down and tie underneath with matching slacks. He never dreamed of wearing something as nice as this in his life. He decided to try it on first, no one seemed to be around. Feeling comfortable in his skin for once, Nick took a step out from the dressing room to look at himself in uniform. He looked incredible! Nick looked like he just fought in the second world war in this outfit. And above that, he knew what it was all reminiscent of.

In the one mirror, he caught the reflection of the owner of the shop, an older woman. When he turned around to face her, she had something for him in her hands. It was an officer hat, "Forgot something," she smiled with a twinkle in her eye.

Nick nodded his head and took it from her grasp, placing it on his head.

"Nothing like a man in uniform," the old woman said.

"Thank you, ma’am," Nick almost felt like saluting her. "H-h-how much is all this?"

"Three-hundred," she said. "But don’t worry, it’s yours."

"I’m sorry?"

"Please," she put her hands on Nick’s. "I saw you come in here with those ratty clothes, the least I could do is help a young, struggling man. I see you look sharp with your haircut, now you just need the finishing touches," she bent around one of the mirrors and pulled out a pair of brown dress shoes. "Now you feel free to stop over whenever you want now and pick out anything you’d like, I’m sure you will pay me back when you can. Don’t even think twice of it. I’ve never seen someone wear a suit as well as you in my day. Have you ever been in the service, son?"

"No," Nick said, "but maybe I’m thinking about it."

What?!?! Was he really saying that?!?!?

"Well, never too late to serve your country. To serve others," she smiled and walked away, leaving Nick alone.

He shook his head and gathered his things. What was happening today? He took one more look at himself in the mirror, he really did look good in this uniform. No one back home would ever recognize this was him. And wasn’t that what he was looking for? Leave that life all behind, start anew?

He thanked the owner up front, claiming he would pay her back somehow some way. "You haven’t seen the last of me, ma’am," he called behind his shoulder as he walked out of the store.

Nick knew where he was going next, he just hoped it wasn’t too late.

-----

Usually Angelo would go upstairs to his apartment by the time it seemed like he had no more patrons for the day. He’d had a few more customers come in after the guest Nick strolled through, and then plenty more between the four and six block. But he still hadn’t left the shop, even keeping the lights on. Yet no one bothered him for a haircut, maybe he would treat them even if it wasn’t shop hours. Angelo couldn’t get himself to leave though, he was thinking about Michael again, hadn’t stopped thinking about him until that stranger came through today.

The bell jingled as it always did, but Angelo paid it no mind.

The stranger didn’t say a thing. Just stood there. For all Angelo could know, he could be shot in the back of the head at any moment, or robbed by gunpoint. Still, this intruder said nothing, did not move, Angelo couldn’t even hear him audibly breathe. Finally caving in, he threw down to the ground the newspaper occupying his loneliness, and stood up without even looking in the mirror’s reflection before turning around to face his fate.

He was thrown off by the sight in front of him. He knew that it was Nick standing there in the vintage army officer uniform, but it could not distract Angelo’s immediate thought that this young man was truly the spitting image of his late son.

"I," Nick began to say, "I know I can never replace Michael, even if I am in this uniform, and look like him as you say," he breathed heavy, "but you taught me a lot today, stuff I wished I had known earlier in life. But maybe that was the point, I was just meant to learn it all here, today, in this shop of yours. I realize I want to better myself, whatever that takes. I don’t know if that means enlisting or just being an apprentice to you here, if that is something you would be okay with. All I do know is that I want to do better, I’ve learned that much today. And I’ve also learned that I can do better. I just have to believe."

It wasn’t his son before him, but Angelo couldn’t but think how succinct Nick was talking, very reminiscent of Michael who was always a good boy, wanting to do what was best for everyone above himself. Because then it would make him feel good about himself. Angelo sucked in some air, trying to prevent his tears from welling up, "Well, Nick…to hear I may have changed your life…I gotta say…I think you may have changed mine."

Nick grinned. "Thank you, Angelo. I just knew I had to talk to you, didn’t know if you would be in…it is kind of late."

"Yes, well, I did close earlier," Angelo laughed. "Just haven’t brought myself to head back upstairs for a dinner."

Nick nodded his head. "Have room for one more customer for today?"

"I already cut your hair earlier, young man."

"I know," Nick nodded again, "but I’m in uniform…and I remember you said whenever your son Michael would come home on leave he’d let you cut his hair, in any military style you wanted. Maybe I shouldn’t enlist myself, in case they ever look into my record," Nick chuckled. "But maybe I need some discipline, somehow."

Angelo shook his head, "Hop on up, son."

It only took Nick three or four long strides across the shop’s floor to seat himself in the barber chair. And almost immediately, Angelo was tying him down by cape. "I’ll leave it to you, boss," Nick said.

"Alright, I won’t go overly dramatic son," Angelo smiled. He did grab the pair of clippers without a guard and said, "You ready, Nick?"

He nodded his head in agreement, "Let’s do it."

The clippers flicked on, filling the silence of the shop, and Angelo went to the right side of his client’s head, clearing halfway up the head to skin, and then repeating that motion a shave over, and then another until he was at the back, at which point when he went through Nick’s occipital bone he heard the young man moan. Angelo continued around to the left side of Nick’s head, leaving nothing but skin half way down the sides and back of the head. Once this part was done, Angelo replaced the clippers with another pair, and began to fade in the skin to the rest of the hair, bringing it down a little shorter still on the sides, but leaving the top untouched. Nick’s transformation was eminent and no one from his previous life was for sure going to recognize it was him. The little hairs were all over Angelo’s hair as he faded skin to hair, noticing the shorter Nick’s hair got it was a lot lighter than he anticipated, but still brown.

Then, after all the clipper work had been done, Angelo got a spray bottle and comb and began to wet down the top of Nick’s head thoroughly, running a comb and one of his hands through it, making sure it was all covered. Then he grabbed the scissors out of his shirt pocket, and began to cut away at the top, bringing it to a much shorter length, one equated to an Ivy league. He could tell Nick’s eyes bugged out a little bit in the mirror reflection, but otherwise the young man was grinning ear to ear throughout the transformation. Even as thick clumps of hair from on top, that had been perfectly trimmed only hours before, landed in defeat on top of the cape, drop after drop. Angelo had to thin out a little bit more of the hair, but not so much considering how much hair he evidently removed from the top of his client.

Next Angelo got out the blow dryer and began to work it through with a hand on top of Nick’s head, noticing how short he really had cut it. That was fine, he knew what he was doing and he was going to make his client look sharp. With the help of the blower, he was able to get it to stand up how he wanted, and erected even better with the help of some product afterwards. Just a touch to hold it all into place and he had Nick looking like a whole new man.

Angelo released the cape from around Nick before even asking him his thoughts, so that way the young man could see his whole transformation, cut, uniform and all. "Well, Nick, what do you think?"

"Never better," he smiled. He stood up out of the seat, standing even taller than he had when he arrived only just before, and shook Angelo’s hand. "Thank you for everything."

"Don’t thank me just yet now," Angelo shook his head. "If we are on the path to helping you, we’ve got some work to do. Starting tomorrow I will have you in the shop with me, of course not cutting hair. But you will be doing the sweeping and manning the register. I’m sure you can handle that."

"Yessir," Nick said like a soldier.

"And in case anyone asks, I’ll say my nephew Nick has come to stay with me and is considering picking up the barber trade. Wouldn’t be lying technically, you could pass for a relative of mine after all. But, we will get you going and even if we have to find you part time work to pay off that uniform from Ms. Delia…don’t think I couldn’t guess where you pulled that rabbit out of," Angelo winked.

Nick smiled. "She said I could have any of the clothes from her store and pay them back in my own time."

"Oh I’m sure she did now," Angelo laughed. "Sweet woman. She probably saw you needed some help. We are all willing to do that sort of thing in this town, Nick. In time, you’ll come to see just how much," he patted his new nephew’s shoulder. "Now come on upstairs, I’m sure your starving. I only have some leftover food but tomorrow I promise I’ll make pasta and meatballs," and so the barber led his apprentice upstairs, where Nick moved into the spare room and began a new life. One away from his past, one that allowed him to be free and discover himself.

A year later, Nick was still in town, apprenticing under Angelo but still getting his hours and licensing in barber school. He frequented the diner in town a lot, even helped around at Ms. Delia’s shop as a way to pay back for the uniform as well as the other clothes he had since "purchased" from her. And from his own change of life and perspective, he encouraged Angelo to see his own family more, his siblings and their spouses, his nieces and nephews and their kids for those that already had them. It completely shifted Angelo’s perspective and made him realize how much he had been missing out on in the last few years. So much so, that even if Nick was very much an adult, the two of them had the papers signed that Angelo was his legal guardian. Nick wouldn’t call him dad or pops, he would not do that to Angelo or the memory of Michael who they thought of daily. He was Uncle Angelo to him now, and they were a new kind of family.




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