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Flammable Materials (II | Finale) by Zero


III


One Sunday morning, the man shakes him awake.

"Your dad woke up".

His world comes to a halt and they move to the hospital so quickly, it's like they forego the laws of physics themselves.



His dad is exhausted and he has just woken up from nine months in bed and their conversations are brief, exchanges of signals of awareness from both of them.

And S is there when he goes to visit his father.

He meets S in the hospital cafeteria. He is almost recovered from his injuries from the accident. He still walks supported by a crutch on one side.

They won't be able to send him off to war while he's like this.

S doesn't notice. He doesn't realize that he is there.

He looks at him. Once. He slides his finger across the phone screen. Twice. His phone goes back into his pocket. A third time.

Until S says his name out loud.



They talk while the nurses ask them to give them space.

"I see you are better".
"What about you?" S asks. Maybe for the first time in him entire life.

(As if he cared).

"Nothing. Classes and stuff".
"You know that if you need help with math or physics, I can help you, don’t you?".

(Just shut up).

He already knows that S is much smarter than him and he doesn't need to be reminded.

And S tries to resuscitate the conversation, if that is a conversation.

"He made you cut your hair".
"Yes".

S's hand moves up to his forehead, to touch his hair, and he pushes it away.

S looks at him for a few more seconds and passes his judgment:
"F***. I always thought you were the lucky one you got Mom’s hair. You know?".

(Why don't you shut up?).

"No, I didn’t know".

And he doesn't care either.

"Now you do".

He barely remembers what S looked like with longer hair.

S enlisted when he wasn't much older than him and Rose can't remember what he looked like before.



Regardless, S hugs him before he leaves. Maybe he does it because their dad is there.

And for whatever reason, Rose doesn’t shove him off him.

Maybe because their dad is there and things are too much the way they are.



‘Sorry’ comes a text from S late that night.

He is lying awake in bed.

‘Same’.

A new message comes right after.

‘Hey. Thanks for replying’.

Rose sees S is typing something more.

‘I love you. I hope you know that’

Their conversation doesn’t go any further.

He isn’t angry at S. Or not as much as he used to.

And he doesn’t feel like he’s going to burst into flames.



He texts A the next morning with the news about his dad.

A has news too.

His first thought is that he has told his parents everything. He’s not a believer, but he’s still praying things weren’t a disaster.

And if things were a disaster, he hopes he’ll find the right words to say.

With his heart pounding, he dials his number.

He doesn't even greet him and asks what he has to tell him.

His pulse stills and quiets just as fast.

"I’m moving. My dad got transferred".



A does not say goodbye to him in person.

And he barely sees him the last few days.

"Dude, why are you avoiding me? What am I to you?" he confronts him in the locker room the day after a competition.
"A mistake" A moves out of his way "Now, leave me alone".
"No, what happened?" Rose tails after him.
"Nothing".



He moves back with his dad and promises to visit Xavier and Eric. S helps them accommodate back at their old house.

Rose doesn’t know anything about A through all that or during the summer. Until September, when he sees a photograph of his former classmate.

He has shaved his head and wears a military school uniform and is next to his father.

The hair A has left is dark, the shade of the sand right where the water comes and goes.



Epilogue



Rose is not keeping track, but he’s sure that at least twenty minutes of this forty-minutes-long call have been on whether or not he’s going to the meetup.

"Henry, for the last time, I am not going to the high school reunion. The reason I’m staying here is my niece’s birthday, then I’m…".
"Alastair is coming" his friend counterpoints.
"Alastair?" he repeats "You mean Allen?".
"Of course, I mean Allen. What other Alastair did we go to school with?".
That’s a fair point.
Rose digs inside his pocket for his keys and maneuvers the takeaway "I’ll think about it. If not, see you tomorrow at the game".

He says goodbye to his former classmate and ends the conversation there.

He had promised himself he wouldn’t be one to fall for nostalgia.

He thought he’d always be happy to be somewhere else and leave his brother and sister-in-law the home affairs.

Besides, Dave must be pulling something to get him to go to the high school graduation.

He doesn’t think it’s true that A is going to be there.

At best, he might have told someone he’d like or he’d try to be there.

"Nephew" his mother’s half-brother opens the door for him before he can turn the key.
"Uncle, it’s good to see you" he greets him with a sincere smile.
"Welcome home, kid" the man’s husband gives him a half-hug and takes the bags out of his hands "Here, I’ll take this to the kitchen, you take off your coat and get comfortable".
"Thanks" Rose takes off his beanie and runs a hand over the top of his head.
"We’re in the living room, your dad and your brother just arrived as well" his uncle’s spouse tells him as he goes away.
"F***, now I owe 50 bucks to Eric" the military officer looks at him up and down "You’re still shaving your head, after all".
"It gets me laid, you’d know, wouldn’t you?" Rose laughs and caresses his nape.
"Shut up" Xavier laughs.

Rose goes greet the rest of his family.

"I am the one in the military but you’re the one who’s never home and shaves his head all the time, what’s up with that?" his brother complains to him with a glass of beer on his hand.
"I missed you too, Saul" he tells him.
"Uncle Leo!" his niece comes running towards him and he catches her in his arms.

He’s not nostalgic at all.

So, what if the high school reunion is tonight? He has a compromise tonight with his family and the handful of his classmates he actually called his friends are no longer here.

Besides, as much as he fights with his dad, his brother and his uncle, spending a couple days every couple years, with them is something he actually enjoys.

And about A, well A is in the past, or at West Point or somewhere in the Middle East or South America or outer space as long as he’s concerned.

"Son, stop shaving your head, come on, you’re still so young, you don’t know if you’ll still have hair when you reach my age" his dad always makes the same comment.

It’s past midnight and all of them have been drinking enough for the conversations to start looping like every year.

Maybe he’ll escape into his old bedroom for a while or say he’ll go check on his niece upstairs and just stay there until this round of reviving disagreements is over.

He glances at the notification on his phone screen.

There’s a message from Dave.

‘Alastair’s here’.

He goes to check the stories from his classmates, he sees him tagged in a handful of them.

F***.

Despite himself, a couple minutes later, he’s telling his family that he’s leaving.



Chance is stubborn, but so is he.

He finds him at the entrance of the bar one his classmate’s family still runs. Green eyes. Freckles. Blond. He knows it’s him right away.

His hair is gathered in a bun at the back of his head, not slicked back as he had initially thought.

Not in West Point or at a fort, then?

"Alastair Allen" he says his full name, like an invocation.
His former classmate stumbles upon his own voice for a second when he sees him "Rose".
"What a surprise to find you here" Rose tells him.
"Great seeing you. As I was telling the others, I’m on my way out" A takes a couple sidesteps.
"So am I" he corners him.



Alastair Allen.

He’s changed alright.

He’s pierced. Subtly. Both ears. One has three holes in them. Something he can take off at a moment’s notice for his parents, surely. A way for him to keep appearances if needed.

He has half-done tattoos on his forearm, uncolored lines, still tender and healing, like he had a session just days before.

And his hair. The blond he had when they were teenagers is gone. It’s a honeyed gold, that he knows that it won’t ever look the way it used to again.

"So, how was the military school?" he’s bitter and uninhibited, and he doesn’t save any of it, doesn’t want to spare him any of it.
"I wanted to graduate with you" A leaves his wallet on top of a night stand "I told you I actually liked it here".
"Did you come here to see me?" Rose takes off his jacket.
A remains quiet for a second "Did you?".
He acknowledges it "I was hoping to".

The alcohol in his blood takes the steering wheel.

His lips collide against A’s. He grabs him with both hands without giving it a fraction of a thought to it. It’s pure instinct robbing him blind and he’s letting it.

A’s body moves in response to his right away. His body still remembers. Their bodies still know how to navigate each other. There’s a hitch in his breath.

The other’s hand is quickly securing the back of his head, hair buzzed almost down to nothing, dark stubbles that itch and prickle at touch, back like when they where teenagers.

Rose lifts his hand from the fist that’s holding the front of A’s shirt and pulling him in towards him, to the back of his neck, to his nape, to the thick, silky, golden mane his fingers had anchored to years before.

His mouth travels from his jaw to his neck, even in December, he can taste his salty sweat, he knows he is making him sweat.

"Stop pulling" A commands him when he has him up against the wall through jaded breaths.
"What? Am I being too rough on you? Don’t you like it rough?" Rose lets go of his hair and caresses his former classmate’s neck.

A takes a second to reply, he pulls the locks that have come untied over his face back and then he loosens the rest of his mane.

"I want you to shave it all off".
"Allen…" Rose hesitates "Alastair".
"Do it" his former classmate slides his hand down his arm and intertwines his fingers with his tightly "I mean it".
"Come on, Allen" he argues with him "Besides, what am I going to use to shave your hair…".
"I’ve got a trimmer and a pair of scissors" A kisses him in the jaw "Can you handle?".
Rose sighs, looking at the determination, the decision inside A’s eyes "Yes, I can".



A takes off his shirt and Rose sees another tattoo on his shoulder blade.

His body is still athletic, his build has matured and he has fully grown into the frame of his father. He is sitting on the floor with legs crossed and his back to him.

The warm golden light of the nightstand lamp showers both of them. The room is cool, even with the heater turned on. It’s a college-student-paid motel room, it is what it is.

A promise or a haunting, he can’t tell which one of two has gone long unacknowledged between them.

The scissors laid next to a trimmer.

Rose also bares his chest. He tries to invoke what he had envisioned back when they were teenagers, when he offered to do this for him.

He sits right behind him. The space between the ends of his mane and his shoulders is a finger or a finger and a half at most.

"So, you told them" Rose picks up the scissors.
"Not exactly" A’s shoulders fall.
"Then…" he fondles a lock between his thumb and his index finger.

He takes a deep breath and lifts the scissors high, close to the scalp, where the lock he is holding is lodged.

"I got caught".

He wants to ask more. He wants to know if he was okay. F***, he wants to know if he is okay.

Maybe that’s everything he wanted, needed to know.

"You should have told me" he releases the tension around the lock and doesn’t open the blades "Why didn’t you call me?".

He picks up a handful of A’s hair at the front, gathering his bangs this time, steadying his hand, steeling himself for this.

A’s voice comes heavy, not by regret, not by resentment, by something different "What would have you’ve done?".

Carefully, almost afraid to hurt him, he gets the blades as close as he can to his scalp, to the very roots of his hair and starts slicing through the locks.

"Anything".

He lets go of the blond clumps, releases them on the floor softly.

Then, he waits for an instant and observes A, he sees him breathe and he waits for a sign to stop, but it doesn’t come.

Rose remembers the photo he last saw of him, the summer after they departed.

He wonders if it was easy or if it was hard for him to get enrolled in a military school. If his father brought him to a base barbershop in preparation or if he wanted to be the one to get rid of his son’s beautiful, long hair.

He takes a deep breath and lifts a second handful of locks and hears the dry crunch of the scissors severing them.

He’s impressed at how they weight in his hand, when the mass moves from the other’s head to his palm.

"I’m sorry I said you were a mistake" A picks a discarded lock from the floor and holds it.
"I’m not a mistake" Rose sees the darker bronze at roots of his hair being unveiled with every snap of the blades "What am I to you, then?".
"I was in love with you" he sighs and drops the clump on the floor "And I was terrified of what I was feeling".
He caresses the shorn hair on top of A’s head "I know".

The eagerness and the fear, he remembers it.

Rose doesn’t know how many minutes it takes him from the first cut to the second he loops A’s last remaining long lock off his head, he strokes the jagged hair softly.

It’s still so soft even hacked off and uneven and patched in every inch like this.

Rose is already mourning the hair he won’t be able to hold on to.

"I think a barber can fix it" he tells him leaving the scissors on the floor "I mean, I could fix it if I had clippers, maybe a two would even it out" he gages the amount of almost skin-length dents in A’s hair.
"Shave it" A rakes his fingers through the jagged, blunt remains of his hair "I want you to do it".

He obeys his command.

He takes the trimmer. He flicks the switch and turns it on. It roars to life.

Gently, he nudges A’s head forward, so his chin meets his chest.

His hairline is gorgeous. He places the steel teeth at the base of his neck. Then he moves it upwards. A strip of bare skin grows longer as he slides the blades up the curve of his skull.

He finishes the first pass and strokes A’s newly exposed scalp with his knuckles. He sees a shiver in response to his touch.

He continues shaving the back of his head. Stripping him of every remain of his hair. He sees the tufts slide past his spine, over the lone tattoo on his right shoulder blade.

As he denudes both sides, Rose thinks how much he would want to salvage even just a hint of A’s blond mane.

Then, he straightens A’s head and secures it in position holding the back of his skull.

He removes the last stubs of his hair diligently.

He has asked one thing of him tonight and he wants to get it done right. Despite his own second thoughts about it.

"Turn over. Look at me" he commands him, turning off the trimmer.

Rose observes A.

He’s a different man.

He looks rugged. He’s noticed it before, of course. But it’s more obvious to him. His face looks so bare, like it can no longer hide anything not from him, not from anyone else.

Before he can inspect it any longer, before he can do a second shave or offer to razor his head, A’s mouth is hungering after him, it’s nesting inside the crook of his neck and Rose welcomes it with a purr inside his throat.

He propels himself, holds himself in place with his elbows and feels the severed locks tingling in his skin while A’s head rasps against his jaw, and his teeth latch on his breastbone and his shoulder and he surrenders to all of it.

Lighter. A feels so much lighter.

He feels like he can soar and make him levitate too with just a touch.




He wakes up first the following morning.

A is awakened if it’s by his motion or the sound, he doesn’t know. He watches him put on yesterday’s clothes back on.

He wishes he could watch him do it every single day.



"Hey, let me know you get there safely" Rose asks him as they leave the room.
A smiles at him fondly "I will".

And Rose thinks he doesn’t want any other sky or any other stars that aren’t the ones in his eyes.

He waves goodbye.

It’s almost the end of the year and it feels like the end of everything.

Besides, everything was different. Everything is different.

Everything will be different.








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