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The Long Walk by Kyle Shearing

I close the front door behind me with a heavy thud. Heading down the driveway, I take a left toward Maple St. The air is thick and muggy, and already I regret starting so late in the day. Realizing I'd left my water bottle on the kitchen counter I turn on my heels back toward home but just as quickly turn again. It's like I have Dad at my back, pushing on my shoulders, telling me "You spent the day dawdling and you're already later than you should be. Get to it." Without water, under the summer sun, I push forward on the long walk to the barber shop.

After almost a mile on the residential streets, Maple to Collins and then Highland, I finally hit 20th and the larger busy streets. The wind from all the busy Saturday traffic feels great, chilling the sweat I'd accumulated down my armpits and my back. The direction of the wind changes with the traffic light and my black hair blows down my face, covering my eyes and scraping across the tip of my nose. I push my fingers through it, as a make-shift comb, and try to push the bangs back. It's a losing battle. After 3 months without so much as a trim there's not much I can do. "I guess the barber will be happy to take care of that for me," I think with a sense of grim finality.

He'll be more than happy, if the stories from school are true. There aren't that many barber shops in the area, but Nick's is the one everyone knows to stay far away from. He's more of a butcher than a barber, one of those really old old-school type like from the 50's. Which made him the perfect guy for Dad to call. Dads love that kind of stuff.

Pawing through my hair, knowing how much of it is about to be chopped off, in just a couple minutes!... I almost turn back again. I can feel my heart banging in my chest and even more sweat starts pouring down my forehead. I could run back home now, I could hide in my room and no one would be the wiser. Couldn't I? Shouldn't I?

Of course, I know that's not an option. There is a new stick of butch-wax waiting for me on the bathroom counter. It had been purchased the day before. And Dad had already called in the appointment this morning. He and the barber had had a nice, long chat. Nick was told to expect me, was told what a shame it was about how shaggy my hair had gotten. Nick said not to worry about it, "Leave him to me." He'd even let out a little chuckle. All that was left for me to do was walk to the shop, sit in the chair, and let the barber take control.

After what felt like an hour, I head down 22nd Street, behind Fry's, but take the long way around the strip-mall parking lot. My steps slow on the sidewalk, almost to a crawl. It's only maybe a minute extra of delaying the inevitable but I can't help but breathe a little lighter. And then a little heavier as I step up to Nick's entrance.

There's just a few lights on inside, on top of the big mirrors, but the bright sunlight from the huge front window more than makes up for it. The back of the barber shop is dark shadows and angles but I can see every tiny hair covering the floor under the chair Nick stands behind. It's right at the front, next to the window, showing off his work to the world.

The guy in the chair is getting the shortest haircut I think I've ever seen. There's nothing but skin all over the sides and the back, and Nick is sliding an enormous black clipper over a comb on the top, leaving the hairs up there small and squared-off. It's almost all I can take, and I put one foot behind the other, backing up. Nick's eyes focus on to me and I freeze.

Nick: "You Kyle? Kyle Garraty?"
Kyle: "Y-Yeah."
Nick: "Your dad called."

I can't tell if it's a question or a comment, so I just say, "yeah." Nick juts his chin out and arches his jaw toward the black folding chairs behind me.

Nick: "That's the waiting area. You'll be next."

He turns back to his work, and as he does the guy in the chair starts staring at me, from my sandals up to my head. It's like I'm an item in a store and he's trying to figure out how much I cost. He locks eyes with me and smiles. "My son is named Kyle, too. Small world, huh?"

I give a small nod, still a bit frozen from Nick's glare. And now his. The whole time this is happening the clippers have been taking his already short hair even shorter, spraying tiny little red splinters onto the floor. They glitter in the sunlight.

Nick opens the back of the cape but leaves it on for a second more, as he moves in even closer to the guy. Holding a pair of scissors in the air, and glaring at the flat top, he looks like a hunter searching for a kill. He's laser-focused. His whole face even changes, with his forehead scrunching in and his eyes narrowing.

The stories were right. He hates hair.

Nick pulls the cape up and whips it behind him, knocking away all the tiny hairs on it. The guy stands up, clomping his feet, and I can see his white tube socks rise from his running shoes and go all the way up, just short of his knees. He tugs at his short-sleeved tee, making sure it's still tucked into his running shorts.

He doesn't turn to look in the mirror behind him. He just runs his hand over the top and smiles, "Perfect as usual, Nick." As he walks past me toward the register, Nick slaps the barber's cape on the back of the chair and turns it to point to me.

Nick: "This is you, hop to it."

I'm not sure if he's afraid I'll run away, so he doesn't want to leave it to chance? I'd assumed he'd let the other guy pay first, but instead they're both looking at me as I stand up and head to the chair. Almost the second I sit down Nick already has the cape around me, cinched tight over a paper strip around my neck. He pulls the sides of the cape down along the arms of the chair, like he's locking it down. Only then does he head over to the register.

After he pays, the other guy comes over to me and holds his hand out in the air.

James: "Nice to meet you, Kyle. I'm James."

I have to push the cape out of the way to bring my hand out, and lean forward just a bit. He shakes my hand with a vice-like grip, 3 solid shakes and a firm finish.

James: "So Dad called in and said you needed a haircut?"

Nick moves behind me and pulls the cape back over my hand, tightening the thin blue and white fabric taut across my chest.

Nick: "His dad called right when I opened this morning and said he needs a short haircut for the summer, so that's what he's getting."

At that, I can feel my legs go limp. If I wasn't already sitting in the barber's chair I could have collapsed onto the floor.

James: "Wow, so you're really gonna lose a lot of hair, huh?"
Nick: "Definitely."
James: "Wow. That sounds like it'll really be something to see. I might go ahead and take a seat here, if you don't mind. Get a front-row view."

He backs up and takes the folding chair right in-front of me. It's the last thing I see as Nick combs my bangs down in front of my eyes. I can feel Nick's fingers spread out over my head as he clinches tight to the crown. Slowly, my whole head is pushed down, digging my chin into my chest. And then suddenly, without warning, I can feel bare clipper blades sliding up the back of my head.

One pass after another, the clippers screaming on each approach, stopping just short of the top. The hair that falls off hits my shoulder with a heavy, wet thump. All the sweat that had collected in it seeps through the thin barber's cape and into my shirt.

James: "Gonna be a lot cooler for him out there, when you're finished."
Nick: "You got that right."

He angles my head to the side, not exactly roughly but quickly, with purpose. Nick's hand never lets up, gripping tight and pulling at the skin with his thumb, getting it even tighter. He pulls my earlobe down, like he's pulling me by the ear, and slides the clippers around there in an arc. He keeps going over that part, and where my sideburn used to be. All the other barber shops ask if you want to keep your sideburns. At Nick's, they aren't allowed.

He turns the clippers off but keeps his hand on my head, holding it down, as he grabs another set. These ones are smaller, and a little higher-pitched. He starts them at the sideburn, digging into the skin like he's looking for something. These go halfway up the sides and back, and even just from the feel I can tell they're taking it down tight. Down to the skin.

Switching clippers again, he goes over the sides with a comb, going over everything he cut and somehow making it shorter, still. I still can't see with the bangs in my eyes, but I don't think the hair on the sides or back is left much longer than James'.

Suddenly, the comb that was going over the sides slides into the hair on top. The clippers go over the comb with a sharp * ting * and a mound of hair falls into my lap. Again and again, he goes through the hair on top. There's a rhythm to it, like he's doing dance steps. The comb goes in, the comb pulls up, there's a second of tense hesitation and then the clippers rip across the comb. The tension in my hair is released as the much shorter strands fall back. The long, cut hairs land in my lap. Wet with sweat, they weigh the cape down.

The plastic comb scrapes across my forehead and up, raising my bangs. I wince from the bright sunlight blaring through the window. My eyes focus just in time to see the several inches-long hair falling down in front of me, what used to be my bangs. I don't even feel my new bangs tap back down onto my forehead. Because, I realize, they're so short that they're sticking up.

Nick finally lifts his hand from my head only to tighten his fingers around my chin. My head is brought up and angled, tipped this way and that. Placing his fingers on my temples, he fine-tunes the position. He whispers, "Don't move," and brings the clippers and comb into the hair on top, taking it even shorter. One swipe after another, buzzing it all down.

James: "Looks like you got a specific cut in mind there, Nick."
Nick: "His Dad wanted him to get a good, short haircut. And from the way he talked about it, I think he's gonna keep him in it for a while. So I wanna make sure it's a nice one."

My lungs get thick and heavy in my chest, and I have to force myself to breath in.

James: "Well * I * think you made the right choice."

He laughs a bit, at his own comment. At some point, I realize they stopped talking to me and are now only talking about me. The conversation about my hair has nothing to do with me. It is between Nick and James. And Dad. My opinions on the matter were not considered and were not asked for.

Around the same time, I also realize Nick is giving me a flattop.

He rubs some gunk into the short bits on top and scrapes a big, black brush through over and over again, with firm dedication. If the hair doesn't want to stand up that doesn't really matter to Nick. He will make it stand up.

When he uses the clippers and comb this time it's more careful, like he's carving the flattop out of marble. This is already the longest I've ever spent having my hair cut and he keeps going back, cutting even more off. If even one hair isn't regulation perfect it's sliced away with the clippers.

Nick does another round with the brush, and somehow even more time going over the top until it's exactly how he wants it. I see him bring the scissors up in the air to the side of my head, and know he's giving the same focused intensity to the flat top on my head that he'd given to James' flattop. He is a man on a mission.

A couple of snips, over the top, and the scissors are set down on the counter.

Nick: "Nice and squared away for the summer, just like every young man should be."
James: "Kyle, you should know, my Kyle is about your age and he wears the same haircut. His is just a bit shorter, more like mine."

He means it to comfort me, I know. To tell me that I won't be the only 17 year old in the world that has a flattop. The idea that there is a shorter version of this haircut, and that my version is longer, comes as the real comfort.

That comfort lasts as long as it takes Nick to turn the barber chair toward the mirror.

The sides are a shade longer than how James has his, I can tell that. But my pale scalp beams through the tiny black bristles Nick left there. And around the ears and above them there is only skin. I've been holding my jaw tight this whole time, since I walked through the door, but now it goes slack, hanging my mouth open. The shaggy, "above it all" look I had going for me has been obliterated. Instead, a 1950's boy scout stares back at me in the mirror.

The flat front bumper is maybe 3/4ths of an inch. The back of the top is barely even there. Still, all the hairs are frozen in place, standing at stiff attention like perfect soldiers, held fast with a heavy application of butch-wax. I turn my head but the only thing you can see is a military regulation haircut right out of an instruction manual. I've been squared away for the whole world to see.

Nick: "That oughta keep Dad happy, don't ya think?"
James: "Oh yeah. It's a real nice haircut. It looks real nice, Kyle."

I realize they're both waiting for a response from me, but my brain feels like it's melted into jelly. All I can think to do is nod. Nick pulls the cape off, slower than he did with James. Slower so he can hold all my hair. He taps me on the shoulders and I finally get up, feeling every muscle in my legs shake and pulse. As I stand there, getting my bearings, James leans around both sides of me, looking at my head from every possible view.

James: "Yes sir, real nice. Nice and clean. Any dad would be happy to see his boy come home with that haircut."

Nick moves over to the register and I hesitate, not sure if my legs even know how to work. It only takes that second for James to step out in-front of me.

James: "How about I pay for this one, too, my treat. Give your money back to your dad. Tell him I said I was happy to see the show."

All I can think to do is nod, again. James pays and heads for the door. I silently follow behind.

Nick: "If I'm right, I think I'll be seeing you again soon, Kyle. The next ones won't take so long, once your hair is trained to like the flattop."

The idea that my hair, once shaggy and long, will be trained into a flattop, like training a new recruit, hits me in the stomach. It's all I can do to nod, one last time, and head out the door.

James is standing there, by his car, waiting for me.

James: "Get in, I'll give you a ride home. Don't think it's safe for you to walk in this heat, 'specially with those big bald sides you got now. Don't wanna get a sunburn, come on, hurry up."

Still struck dumb, I comply with his orders and get in. Every inch of the car is spit-shine perfect, not a speck of dust to be seen. The floormats even look new. James speeds out of the parking lot and down the same streets I'd walked though an hour ago, with the hot, sticky wind combing through my hair. Now the AC in James' car blasts cold air across the exposed skin all over my head.

I guide him to my house, and he pulls up just behind the driveway and turns his car off.

James: "Is your Dad home? I have to admit, I really wanna see his face when he sees his son's new haircut."

All the wind gets knocked out of me, but I know I have to answer. My mind races.

Kyle: "Oh, well, no, he's at work, so..."
James: "On a Saturday?"

It's an obvious question, and he doesn't say it with a prying tone, but I can feel all the blood rush up to my head. I can tell my cheeks are red and heated, even without touching them.

Kyle: "Oh, well, he had to go in, like special. It was a big work emergency really early this morning, before the sun even came up."
James: "Oh. Wow. ...But, wait, am I wrong, or did Nick say he called into the barbershop this morning, right? He called in from work for your haircut, during an emergency?"

After being struck dumb from my new incredibly short haircut, I can barely put two words together. I tilt my head to the side, and suddenly realize I'm trying to hide behind my bangs like I used to. But there's nothing there now. All James sees are butch-waxed bristles standing tall and my exposed face that's visibly getting more and more flummoxed. I also now realize that might be the point of a young guy having to get this haircut in the first place.

All James' questions have been delivered with calm curiosity but now his whole mood changes. His lips curls up into a smirk, and then part into a big, toothy grin. A smile of satisfaction, like he'd just * clicked * the last puzzle piece into place.

James: "You know, Kyle, now that I've heard you talk, you really have a deep voice. Nice bass tones to it. I bet people confuse you for being older on the phone, huh?"
Kyle: "Sometimes..."
James: "Yeah, I'll bet. I'll bet it happens all the time."

His eyes narrow, considering me even closer. My eyes get wider and wider, and I'm almost scared they'll fall out of my head. I can't even talk; it feels like there's gravel in my throat. He turns his whole body to me, removing his seatbelt and leaning back into the door frame. He pushes his palm back over the fresh-shaved wall of scalp above his ear and looks straight into me.

James: "I noticed Nick saying he * hoped * to see you, which I guess means your dad forgot to make any more appointments for you probably, right? It probably just slipped his mind, because of that work emergency, right, don't you think?"
Kyle: "Umm... I- I guess."

He nods, and taps the wheel with his fingers. Waves of adrenaline shoot through every part of my body like battery acid.

James: "Well you tell Dad not to worry about it. I'll take care of that for him. Just a little favor, one dad to another, right? I work right next to Nick and I can let him know, no problem."

He looks at his watch.

James: "Let's go ahead and say every two weeks for now, that's gonna be the 23rd, so I'll see you bright and early Saturday the 23rd, I'm making the appointment for when Nick opens."

He reaches across me and pops open the glove compartment, taking out a business card. He looks down at it and smiles before handing it to me. It says his name, James O'Halloran, and it says he's an Army recruiter. The font is black and shiny, like gun metal.

James: "Stop by my office before you head to Nick's. I'll be there expecting you. I think we've got a couple things to discuss."

He puts his seatbelt back on and starts the car, his way of letting me know we've finished. I get out and close the door and start walking but I stop when I hear his window roll down.

James: "Don't forget to tell Dad 'hi' for me."

After he drives away, and I get inside, I walk through the empty rooms slowly, like I forgot how to move. My mind is whirling but I also can't put together any thoughts. I get to the bathroom, where the butch-wax I'd bought yesterday still stands. I stare into the mirror, at the new me, and sigh.

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