Contest #145 shortlist ⭐️

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Coming of Age Inspirational Sad

This story contains sensitive content

(Content Warning: Swearing. Mentions of substance abuse.)


He runs his fingers across the man's coarse, grizzled mop; finger's deep, he wonders when was the last time he had gotten it cut. His eyes look like they've seen a thousand lifetimes, he thinks to himself. The man's reflection goads and rattles them both. 

  If his story had a beginning, it would be somewhere in a dark alley, tucked between shadows and sagging trash bags. He'd be tossed on the floor like a sullied rag, with nothing but his trench to shield him from the world. Or perhaps, it would start with a boy sitting under a rusted metal chair, a mechanical buzzing reverberating across kitchen tiles, and tufts of hair falling to the ground as gently as powdered snow.   

  It would start with a family living in an unnamed settlement of trailer homes and warped boxy constructs herded together like cattle. The boy's mother cuts hair in exchange for favors and coins —a buzzcut for a fiver, a bottle of expired Valerian, or a pack of cigarettes. His father leaves for work as soon as the sky is shaded peach and returns with the stars, hungry and tired like a bear, ready to sleep after dinner and a smoke.  

  For the most part, he's happy. The boy knows little about his surroundings, of what lies beyond the gated community of mobile homes. At six, he's running with the other children, playing with the scraggly-looking strays and hunting down empty bottles to smash in the woods. Tell your old man that my Pa's got his money, an older boy tells him. 

  Money for what? he asks.  


*


Draped in a white sheet, the man looks ancient and Socratic, like a weathered bust displayed in an art museum. 

  Promise that you'll make me look good, the man says with a hoarse chuckle. You know how word spreads on the streets. Can't have someone like me walking out of this place looking like a bum. 

  He peers into the man's reflection; loses himself in his creases and riptides, in the harsh tones underneath his eyes. Trust me, he wants to tell him, understanding the blatant truth behind the man's words and the darkness that's settled in the corner of his mind. 

  He places both his hands on the man's shoulders. He smiles. Well, don't you worry, sir. You'll look great. 


*


The boy's mother sleeps as idle as a corpse, with her mouth open and her arms slung about like tentacles. The kitchen's riddled with ratty bundles of hair, and the stove light stains the air with amber. He wonders if he should try to wake her, to tell her that his father still isn't home, but he also knows that nothing could. 

  He traces his mother's figure under the syrupy glow. He imagines a housefire. Could I save her? And pictures a group of cloaked men with black hoods raiding their home. Guns in their hands, they would shake her. Is she high or something? They would ask before turning to him. Where the fuck's your father?

  He opens the refrigerator and sees nothing but a pair of double-A batteries, a can of seltzer water, and a limp carrot sprouting slender white shoots. The boy opens half-empty cabinets containing sacks of sugar, canisters of bug spray, coffee grounds, and bluish bread. He scours the drawers, sifting through kitchen rags, placemats, and plastic utensils. I wonder if someone could live off hair, he asks himself. 

  Back to the fridge, the boy grabs the can of carbonated water. Turning on one of the stove's burners, he fetches a cigarette from his back pocket and touches its end to the ring of flames. He sits on the dirty kitchen floor, feeling the loose strands tickle his feet while blowing smoke and thinking, Why do I have to put up with this? 


*


He's always been terrible at small talk, at making interesting conversation or wise observations. He wishes that he could do with words what his hands do effortlessly, that he could snip them from himself —cut, cut, cut, what do you think?

  The man sensing the weight of the silence, uncomfortable with the chatter of the metal sheers and the constant shuffling around him, asks, So tell me, son, what made you want to start doing this?

  Hmm?

  You know? The man explains. What got you into this line of work?

  I guess it started with the need for change. 


*


At fourteen, he learns not to care. 

  He's friends with the sons and daughters of his father's clientele, a pair of brothers who hijack old cars, selling the parts cheap and quick, while the girls have their own private club, scamming city folk out of their cash by passing off cat poo for quality hashish. Together, after school, they flock to one another and head over to the brothers' house. The door squeals as soon as it's pushed, but it doesn't matter. No one's home. 

  They bolt to a bedroom while unzipping their bags; everyone's brought something, a party favor for the potluck. The brothers boast a metal box of naphtha gas and heavy-duty plastic baggies. One girl pulls out her nail polish remover, another a tube of house name aerosol, while the last one fiddles around with the torn zipper of her pencil case before finally ripping it apart and revealing two bottles of Wite-Out. 

  Curious, the gang looks at him, fishing through his backpack for the one thing they're all more interested in. Here we go! He says with a toothy grin while pulling out a crumbled nest of brown paper with little white pills of meth stolen from his father's stash.   

  Looks like this is going to be quite the BYOD, one of the boys says. 

  The fuck's that?

  A bring-your-own-drugs party, dumbass.

  He watches the colors dance around him in dazzling light. He feels the room sway, breathe and come alive, sees everything and everyone warp and ripple like magma. He loves the bag with naphtha gas and refuses to give it away. Come and get it, I triple dog dare ya, he says to the blurry remnants he calls his friends.

  Unable to stand up, he writhes around like an earthworm and imagines the boys and girls around him as fish. He starts to laugh wildly, and they all join him until their out of breath and their ribs tough.  


*


The man arches his neck back. This is the moment he enjoys the most —to see their eyes close; their expressions relax. He coats the man's head in suds, allowing the shampoo to seep through the thicket of hairs down to the roots. If you could only see yourself.  

  He watches the murky water whirlpool down the drain, washing away —if only for a brief moment— lingering strands, clodded worries, and stained memories. He allows his eyes to follow the hypnotic motions, glamouring him for a spell, as his palms and fingers carry the water to the man's crown.   

  Is it too hot?

  No, son. I reckon it's perfect. 


*


The sounds of the big city fill his head like a gourd. Feet clapping against asphalt, rolling tires, and the talk of people in their own private bubbles are all painfully earthshattering after a high. 

  Sprawled out on the floor, he searches his back pocket for a smoke but comes up short with only a cigarette butt and the piece of scrap paper in which the shard of crystal meth had been wrapped. He hugs his jack tighter, feels the skin of his chest pinch from his desperate grip, feels the weightlessness, the void, the treason of his own mind and body.

  Months ago, he left the plot of trailers and matchbox homes, said goodbye to no one, left a letter to his mom, and hoped everything would be alright. He intended to leave it all: the drugs, the sleepless nights, his renegade father, the young boy from his past life. 

  Every morning he reminds himself he really needs to get his shit together. At night he contradicts himself. He wanders between glass and concrete towers and bright city lights, feeling lost, searching for the one thing that breathes him back to life.


*


Like a magic trick, he reveals the man to himself. Clean-cut and surprised, the man does his best to not let his mouth drop. He wants to stand, touch his reflection, and confirm its novelty. Is that really me?

  Well. . . who else could it be, sir? he returns with a closed smile. 

  The man stands, pats himself, and leans slightly forward to study his figure in the mirror. 

  I take it that I did a hell of a job, then? 

  He notices the man's eyes reddening, the shiver in his hands. 

  I don't know what to say.

  You don't have to say anything. 

  The-There must be something I can do for you? Something to thank you, son, for all of this.

  For me, nothing, he returns. But who knows, maybe one day, you'll be able to help someone out, remember me, and pay it forward. 


May 13, 2022 16:01

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25 comments

Zack Powell
23:24 May 15, 2022

Love the interpretation of the prompt here. I chose this same one but only thought of "fashion makeover" in terms of clothing and not something like a haircut. That's clever, and a haircut being symbolism for change is great. Big fan of the story's formatting. Haircut -> backstory -> haircut, repeat until end. I appreciate you breaking the narrative up in several parts instead of doing a three-act structure of haircut -> full, sprawling backstory -> finished haircut/end of story. There were lots of precise words and phrases and images thro...

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K. Antonio
16:42 May 17, 2022

I was definitely worried about not giving the characters specific names, but I wanted everything to kind of meld, having the characters lives sort of intersect. Anyway, I'm glad it worked out, and that so many others seem to be liking it thus far. Some of the lines and expressions you mentioned were definitely my favorites too. A lot of the words or lines came from several different things that I was thinking about at the time, so having it all mishmash together into a piece was interesting and fun. I've read so many of your pieces Zack. ...

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Zack Powell
17:24 May 20, 2022

Congrats on the shortlist, K.! Glad to see this get its well-earned recognition.

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Riel Rosehill
09:28 May 14, 2022

Finally had the time to read this - I loved this line: "Like a magic trick, he reveals the man to himself." and the parallel between him transforming this man with a haircut and having transformed himself, to me it was like the MC could have been talking to himself in this paragraph, asking himself "Is that really me?" considering how far he changed his life, rather than having a conversation with another person. Great work! PS: I also think the characters didn't need to be named for this story.

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L. Maddison
18:54 May 19, 2022

Hi K, I’ve been feasting on the language in this story- hungry, tired bear of a father, mother’s arms slung about like tentacles, the creases and riptides in the reflection, the idea of snipping out words. All this with a sense of journey, a hero facing adversity, and a final transformation. Epic stuff.

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K. Antonio
20:17 May 19, 2022

I myself tend to feast over your delightful prose as well, L. It makes me happy to know that I was able to return the same sensation. Adore your work!

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Shea West
22:42 May 16, 2022

I liked very much how this was broken up like a deck of cards being shuffled. One part of the story after the other, never really knowing what we'd be dealt next. This line: His father leaves for work as soon as the sky is shaded peach and returns with the stars, hungry and tired like a bear, ready to sleep after dinner and a smoke. I just kinda fell in love with it. I got this visual of his father that spoke volumes about who he was. The hashish and the drugs...and the inevitable transformation, all well done. You didn't need to name a...

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Thom Brodkin
16:43 May 15, 2022

There is depth and layers to this story that I envy. I’m not sure if it was intended but cutting hair is about creating perfect layers and I felt the connection all the way through. I felt like a lot of the story was intentionally vague. It allowed me to bring myself to it. Great job as always. Really fine writing.

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K. Antonio
16:42 May 17, 2022

Thanks Thom. It's always nice to read your interpretation and get your opinion. I'm glad that you enjoyed it!

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Thom Brodkin
16:19 May 20, 2022

Don't tell anyone I said this but you should have won this week. You actually should win most weeks. You're that talented. :-)

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Beth Connor
17:45 May 13, 2022

Why are you so amazing? I've missed reading your weekly stories and always find myself needing to slow down and re-read. Really interesting concept.

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J.C. Lovero
15:25 May 21, 2022

Congrats on the shortlist! Very well-deserved 😄 😁 😆

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Zelda C. Thorne
21:00 May 20, 2022

Well deserved shortlist, K. Beautiful as always. So many lines I liked that I'd have to copy and paste the whole thing lol "the stove light stains the air with amber. " - no idea why, but this image stuck with me Congrats!

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Kelsey H
09:05 May 20, 2022

I really love your writing style - the lyrical phrases, the description of a hard life, the moving back and forward and between past and present, the way you give the exact amount of information to understand the story while still keeping that slightly ethereal feel to it. Lots of amazing lines but I especially loved this one; His father leaves for work as soon as the sky is shaded peach and returns with the stars, hungry and tired like a bear, ready to sleep after dinner and a smoke. Great ending too the way he has found something posit...

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Scott Skinner
06:15 May 15, 2022

This was cool. I've always wanted to write a story where a barber was the protagonist and I liked the angle you took here. When I read 'syrupy glow' I stopped and read it again. I love that description. A few moments later I chuckled to myself about the cat poo passing as hashish. The story had a nice flow to it and was simple but sometimes I like those stories the best. Also, this line is so many of us, "Every morning he reminds himself he really needs to get his shit together. At night he contradicts himself." Nice one!

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K. Antonio
16:38 May 17, 2022

Syrupy glow was one of my favorite lines. I don't know why, but orange light bulbs always make me think of syrup or honey or something of the sort (I'm weird, I know). I'm happy you liked the piece and it's always nice to read your comments Scott! Hope you're doing well!

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K. Antonio
16:11 May 13, 2022

I took some conscience stylistic choices for this piece —yep, there's no quotation marks and no one is named. That was all on purpose. Aside from that, when I saw the prompt, I kept thinking about haircuts and stories of people, who as an act of kindness, offer them to others in need. Pretty common theme of mine to explore and view substance abuse through a different perspective, so I hope I did a decent enough job with this piece. Thanks for reading!

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K. Antonio
13:24 May 21, 2022

Oh shit! I SHORTLISTED! Super happy for the recognition and that my experimental story did well this week. Thinking about beginnings, and how in life we have so many starting points, I can honestly say that one of my best beginnings was when I decided to put myself out there and write. Thank you all to those who read my work and often leave comments. Thanks a bunch to those who share their stories with me as well. This shortlist's a lovely surprise.

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Tommy Goround
03:37 May 23, 2022

Congratulations. I like the voice. The cut-in narration is usually difficult but it worked here. The use of drugs like this , isn't really my bag...but you sold it. Seemed useful with BYOD. I am honestly left thinking: 1) is the man so ugly that a haircut will fix? 2) is he really paying anything forward? I assume he stole his dad's meth money. In fact, it seemed that you were going circular "can I eat hair" and then he becomes a barber. (Please pardon if I don't just clap and tell you the story is wonderful. A good story is worth disc...

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Glen Gabel
00:22 May 22, 2022

Wow, very vivid descriptions of this boy's world. I loved the imagery you use. "The kitchen's riddled with ratty bundles of hair, and the stove light stains the air with amber" sticks, and the journey the MC is on to some kind redemption is set in wonderfully. Thank you for sharing this.

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Kevin Broccoli
19:44 May 21, 2022

This was so well done. I love the restraint you always show in all your writing. There's never anything extra or unnecessary. Great work.

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23:47 May 20, 2022

Congratulations for an exquisitely written story, K. So many phrases and sentences I'd like to single out, but there are too many and it's NOT fair to emphasize some and neglect others ;) Dazzling imagery and metaphors, the history and transformation of a child, his beautiful soul, his ability to transform the looks of the older gentleman, and his generosity of spirit, "... maybe one day, you'll be able to help someone out, remember me, and pay it forward." Just as expected, you regaled us again with another magical story, K. Thank you.

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Aeris Walker
09:12 May 18, 2022

“He opens the refrigerator and sees nothing but a pair of double-A batteries, a can of seltzer water, and a limp carrot sprouting slender white shoots.” This one sentence did so much to really paint the picture of the main character’s home life, his mother’s parenting style, and the bleakness of his childhood. Wow. Caught a teensy typo here: “He starts to laugh wildly, and they all join him until their out of breath and their ribs tough.” “Their” out of breath—should be “they’re”. A powerful story, well done.

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K. Antonio
11:17 May 18, 2022

Aw snap, that typo is gonna kill me! Can't believe I missed it. Oh well. Thanks for catching it. Also, thanks for reading. I'm glad that the descriptions worked out well!

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Aeris Walker
11:54 May 18, 2022

I know how you feel! It’s like you could read your story 1000 times and still somehow miss a typo. But it did not distract from the overall impact of your story ;)

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