The refugees huddle around my fire pit, sheltering from the drizzle underneath a tarpaulin. They may be free from the daily shearings of the pluck squad, but now they face a milder annoyance; Mace peddling uncontaminated tap juice at an extortionate rate. The man won’t fill anyone’s cup before cramming his pockets with their tattered bills.
‘It’s mine, and you can’t have it! Unless you cough up,’ he shouts at a woman with bushy brows.
Bushy Brows waves her metal cup around belligerently. ‘Just fill me up, buster. I’m from around these parts. I’m entitled to council pop.’
Entrepreneurism is vital for survival, but Mace is pushing his luck here, and Bushy Brows isn’t budging. She thrusts her empty cup at Mace’s midriff, and he knocks it out of her hand. Gosh. Should I be leaving the comfort and warmth of my cabin now in order to settle this petty dispute? Probably, yes. I guess I need to establish some ground rules for the refugees if they’re going to be camping here for a while, not to mention putting an embargo on Mace and his antics.
Jeebus, it’s frigid out here. Most of the group is cocooned in sleeping bags, perched on a fallen tree trunk that they must have dragged close to the fire.
‘D’ya think water’s free?’ Mace shouts. ‘D’ya think it’s free?’
I rest my hand on his shoulder, and speak confidentially into his ear. ‘You can’t charge them for water, Mace. Be charitable for once in your life.’
Mace chucks the remainder of his water onto the campfire, and thick, grey smoke spirals up. He swaggers off to the cabin and slams the door shut. Holy crêpe. Is he trying to invite the pluck squad to dinner with that smoke signal? He’s just asking for us to be found by one of their lookouts.
I stamp the wet ashes to quell the rising fumes. ‘Don’t mind him. He was a helium harvester, and he’s having some serious cash withdrawals. You’ll get your money back, don’t worry.’
Groans of vague approval abound; the cold has made the group apathetic. The ones with zero follicular prowess are identifiable as having recently arrived from the city. The fortunate individuals who’ve been suckling at the teat of the countryside waterboard are individuating nicely with beards, lashes, brows, and modest heads of hair. They seem happier overall than the city folk, but their hairdos are lacking in style due to having never seen combs, product, or any professional personnel possessing haircare know-how—because they do not exist, save for Harlan and maybe a small handful of others. I’m sure Harlan would love to give them a shampoo and a trim; he’d be glad of a live model instead of a wig on a mannequin, I bet. Having said that, most of them are looking as lifeless as dummies that would benefit from a morale booster. Maybe a speech will do the trick?
‘Welcome, urbanites and ruralites, to follicle farm! I hope you enjoy your stay here. In the past you may have swilled filthy water from city pipes, or you may have been forcibly deprived of your individuality by the mobile shearing squads. But you are free now. You made a choice to individuate. Now we must unite in our desire for follicular freedom!’
‘Can we get this fire going again?’ Bushy Brows inquires. ‘It’s freezing.’ She pokes the wet ashes with a stick.
So much for a rousing speech. Was anyone paying a blind bit of attention?
‘Do you have any food in your cabin?’ One man asks.
‘Yeah, are you going to invite us in, or what?’ Another man queries.
Jeebus wept. Invite them in? We’ll be packed like sardines in a tin. Still, I must be charitable; the great un-showered here could well be the future of this revolution. I suppose I’d better treat them well if I am to lead them. Maybe they’ll become less hostile with a cup of tea inside them.
‘Alright. Everyone inside. I’ll put the kettle on.’
A marginally more enthusiastic groan abounds. Instead of zipping their sleeping bags open, they stay cocooned and pogo their way over to the cabin like vertical caterpillars in polyester chrysalises. On the porch, they metamorphose out of their bags and impatiently push their way into the cabin, hungry, thirsty, and raring to leave the pervasive chill of the outdoors behind.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘We don’t have sufficient receptacles for ten of you, so you’ll have to share the tea in these two mugs.’
Most of the group sits on the floor and admires the results of Harlan and Tove’s prolific wig-making streak. I tell them not to touch them just yet. Harlan has run out of display busts, so many of the hair pieces are displayed on fragile domes woven of branches.
I pat the top of a wig gently and address the group. ‘Every wig here is designed to be long and thick in order to obscure the wearer’s face. These are 360 wigs. They cover the whole head. These babies are our first line of defence.
‘As you might have gathered, I’m somewhat of a pacifist, so conventional weaponry is out of the question; knives, guns, lasers, and explosives are a no-no. So what does that leave us with? Well, hair, naturally. We have enough of an arsenal here to use in the event of a raid. This cabin is no fortress, but if we’re shrewd, we can defend it.’
Mace hands each of the group a wig and a tube of glue.
‘What’s the glue for?’
‘To adhere the wigs to the heads of our enemies,’ I say, ‘as a means of defeating them.’
‘Can I wear mine as a merkin?’ A bald woman asks.
‘You can do what you damn well like with it as long as you’re prepared to use it come crunch time,’ I say.
The city folk seem excited to finally be in possession of some hair, even though the weapon-wigs are fake nylon.
Mace pipes up. ‘My warriors, it’s time for you to learn how to operate the tripwires outside. For our protection.’
The group sluggishly follows Mace outside.
On her way out, Bushy Brows approaches me. ‘I only got, like, one sip of tea,’ she says. ‘Do you have any lemon and ginger?’
Her brows are eye-catching. Or are her eyes brow-catching? All that tangled foliage is confusing on the face of an otherwise beautiful woman. She must have been a volunteer in Scanlon’s hair supplement trials if her brows are anything to go by. I’m curious to know just how the heck she escaped.
‘Yes, let’s have a proper brew, shall we?’ I ask.
‘Lovely,’ she says, holding out her hand, ‘I’m Siva.’
‘Yes, I know.’
She passes her wig to me. ‘Thanks for this, but I won’t be needing it, as you can see.’
‘No, you hold on to it. It’s a weapon, remember?’
Siva explains that she was a volunteer for Scanlon’s hair trials. The keratin supplement provided follicles so fertile that the madam corralled everyone into cages and harvested their bumper head-crops on a weekly basis. There’s a barn somewhere stacked high with bails upon bails of inorganic hair, some of which will have belonged to Siva.
‘At one point, my hair stopped growing for two weeks, and so did everyone else’s—even the madam’s.’
Mace barges inside, slips off his boots, and plonks himself down next to Siva at the table.
‘Madam Scanlon claimed that the Special K was obstructing our follicles, but that didn’t stop the rituals from going ahead.’
‘Aren’t you supposed to be teaching them how to use the tripwires?’ I inquire of Mace.
‘We’re done. It took two minutes.’
He makes eyes at Siva. ‘So, rituals, eh? Tell me more. Sounds kinky.’
‘Mace, have some respect.’
Siva shrugs. ‘It’s ok,’ she says. ‘You boys ought know what went on.’
‘As long as you’re comfortable—’
Siva nods, and combs a stray brow hair out of her eye line. ‘We were forced to hang upside down and dangle our locks over naked bald men tied to revolving racks. It was supposed to torture them by tickling and humiliating them, but most of the men loved it. The madam prowled around in thigh-high boots, slapping them with a leather riding crop and lording her power over them like a tyrannical matriarch—like a succubus who drinks people dry of their power. Because that is essentially what she is.’
‘Where do I sign up?’ Mace asks. ‘Sounds invigorating.’
‘Mace, come on.’
Siva wraps her fingers around her mug. ‘That’s not all. We would sit naked in zero degree chambers fitted with two-way mirrors and have our reaction to the cold measured. They examined our piloerections.’
‘Really?’ asks Mace. ‘How did anyone get wood when it was that cold?’
Siva shakes her head and smiles. ‘Piloerection is when your bodily hairs stand on end. You get goosebumps.’
Ok, I think I’ve collected enough nightmare fuel hearing about these deviant rituals. Time to change the subject.
‘You escaped,’ I say. ‘How?’
‘The night I saw a bald man eating a hair pie, I knew I had to get out of there.’
There’s another image burned into the retina of my mind’s eye. How will I unsee it?
‘I heard Phillip Glazer, the madam’s personal assistant had freed this other girl, Audrey, I think her name was, and—’
‘Shhh, do you hear that?’ Mace asks, slapping the table. ‘Be quiet.’
He steps quietly over to the door and opens it a crack. A distant roar echoes through the forest. It sounds as though it’s drawing nearer.
‘ATVs,’ Mace whispers. ‘It could be the pluck squad.’
The thundering engine noise draws nearer, but it sounds like they might have gotten stuck. They’re revving at a high throttle, but it doesn’t sound like they’re making any forward progress.
‘Let’s get everyone armed!’
I dash out onto the porch and shout over to the group by the fire. ‘Man the tripwires!’
Everyone dashes to the tree line at the edge of the forest—a stone’s throw from the cabin—and kneels down to grasp the metal cables tied to the tree trunks. We wait for the riders to arrive. They rev and rev, until one or two sound like they have broken ahead.
‘Here’s one now. I’ll draw them over here,’ Mace says, waving his arms and kicking his legs out.
The quad weaves its way through the trees and reaches the treeline edge.
Siva and I heave at the tripwire. The cable flings up and clotheslines the rider at neck level. The rider lands limply on the ground, and Mace yanks their helmet off to reveal a stupendously big, bald head that is just begging for a bewigging. Mace drags the unconscious man to a nearby tree and ties him to the trunk at his waist. As he gags the pluck squad officer with a handkerchief, I spread globs of glue on his scalp and pull the nylon wig over his head. It’s a tight fit, but it goes on.
‘Very pretty,’ I say.
The 360-wig obscures the rider’s whole face, which is just the ticket, and there’s no way he’s pulling it off without tearing his scalp.
The rest of the group has another officer tied to a tree and bewigged. I call over to them. ‘Bring me his jacket and helmet. Quickly.’
‘What are you planning?’ Mace asks.
‘We’re going to impersonate the pluck squad. Well, I am. You keep your trap shut, ok?’
The jacket is way too big for me, and the helmet wobbles around on my head, but if I pull the black-tinted visor down, I look just like the rest of them. Now it’s time to act the part.
‘Siva. Get everyone out of sight while I deal with the rest of these worms.’
It’s true that none of the pluck squad employees are ranked in any way, and I plan to exploit that imminently. The deliberate lack of hierarchy encourages them to compete with one another for rewards based on who completes the highest number of shearings per month. Offering them some heads to shave—albeit their own team members’—should get them off our backs.
Now the remainder of the squad arrives; three men in black jackets, striding out from the trees, helmets on, visors down.
Here goes nothing.
‘Where are your bikes, men?’ I demand.
‘You chumps. We managed to get through just fine.’
‘The mud got worse after you charged through and squelched it up.’
‘Whatever,’ I say. ‘We’ve already tied these hair-clowns up, see? If you take them back to the shearing unit, I’m willing to let you have the points.’
I gesture at my cabin.
‘I’m gonna bust this nest open and cuff ‘em up. We’ll rendezvous with you at the mobile shearing unit in an hour or so. You can use our quads to get you back there. We’ll get yours outta the mud…’
They don’t object in the slightest; adopt an authoritative baritone, and anyone listens. They’re already loading their two unconscious, bewigged colleagues onto the quad racks and tying them down. The squad mounts the ATVs and slaloms slowly through the spruce trees, glancing back occasionally to check that their cargo hasn’t bounced off.
Mace jabs my ribs. ‘Hah! That worked? That actually worked.’
‘Wigs is weapons, Macey. Wigs is weapons…’
‘Once they get back and part their colleague’s face-curtains, they’ll be shaking their fists at us. Plus, they know where we are now, don’t they?’
Mace is right. How long can we go on deflecting the squads with my pacifistic methods? We might have outsmarted them today, but we can’t outnumber them in the long run. We need more recruits, an upscaled wig production line, better fighting strategies, and a new location if those bozos plan on coming back. Unless we dig a lot of pits and trenches in the woods and cover them with foliage? How much would that help?
But for now, can we all just take a moment to celebrate our victory at Follicle Farms and take turns raising our limited number of cups filled to the brim with Adam’s Ale? Yes, perhaps imbibing some council pop will be just the ticket; it truly is the everyday elixir that puts hair on our chest, and everywhere else.