Horror Short: Passing Through
So, this is something a little new for my blog – something a little more fictional than usual! It’s Halloween, and I’d love to share with you a little of my horror writing, so this post is dedicated to a horror short I wrote earlier this year, Passing Through. If you like it and want to read more stuff like it, check out my short story collection Misandry, or my novel Lagrasse!
As the sound of the engine rumbled to an unsteady halt outside, I sighed. Another one.
Not many around here who’d be so down on the idea of a new customer. In Fairville, we barely saw anyone but each other for the entire year; maybe a hundred faces, same as the ever had been. Even the ones that were changing now still seemed familiar; son’s face becoming a father’s, father’s face becoming a grandfather’s. I’d known them all, one way or the other, just like they all knew me. The way folk in small towns know each other; inside and out, and not at all.
The car outside was powder-blue and looked, not new, but like a lovingly-restored classic. The shiny paint job glowed proudly in the bright sunshine of the Indian summer, as the owner stepped out and slammed the door behind him with near to a real spring in his step. I could guess the smile on his face before he so much as pushed open the door – they always had it – and sure enough, there it was. When he passed over the threshold, a small bell over the door confirmed his arrival.
“Hi!” He greeted me brightly, a crooked but sunny smile pasted over his face. Like his car, that face didn’t necessarily look new, but like someone had spent some time recently doing it up.
“Are y’open?” He asked. I nodded.
“Looks like it.”
“Great,” He replied, heading to one of the leather seats facing the slightly smudged mirror hanging on the wall. “I want to be clean-shaven by the time I leave.”
I nodded again. I already could have guessed what he was going to say before he opened his mouth. I’d heard it before, you see, more times than I could count. Almost always from men like this, too – bright-eyed, hopeful, earnest. I never liked this part. But when I opened this place, I promised myself that I was never going to miss out on making another few bucks, not like my father had, and I wasn’t about to break that now.
Joining him over by the mirror, I ran the taps in the sink before us to make sure the water was warm enough and pulled my tools from my belt. Clean shave wouldn’t be too hard; whoever he was, this man was wearing a few days’ worth of stubble, the perfect amount to swipe off for a close shave and no bumps leftover on the skin.
“I wasn’t even sure I would find a barber,” The man told me. He could hardly contain himself. Most of the men who came in here, they didn’t have much to say to me, and that was the way that I liked it – both of us kept quiet, let the sound of the scissors and the low hum of the shears do the talking. Sometimes, I wanted to break the silence, ask them if they had dealt with these familiar boys, too, but I never did.
“Not many around here,” I agreed, carefully. I never knew what to say to these men. A while ago, I had tried to warn one, and he had left without paying. Couldn’t risk that happening again. Say nothing, let them on their way. They seemed happy enough with it anyway.
“You must be the only one around here by miles.”
“Nearly fifty on either side, as far as I can tell,” I replied, unable to keep the tinge of pride out of my voice. Though I really shouldn’t have bothered to hide it – if my sin was pride, then at least these boys wouldn’t be able to tell the priest about it.
“Wow,” he replied generously. I draped a towel over his chest, tucked it into the back of his shirt to catch the water and foam that might have sullied it. As I pressed down on the pump to raise the seat a few inches so that I would be better able to tend his beard, I noticed that he was practically dancing on the spot, shifting back and forth in his seat as though he was a child waiting to unwrap a bike-shaped birthday present.
“You going anywhere special you need a shave for?” I asked him. When I had first started noticing these boys, I had assumed that someone must have set up some shotgun chapel down the road – that these were grooms-to-be, rushed out of bed too late to shave before they left and stopping in on me as a last-chance saloon.
He was dressed something like a groom, after all. His dusty-brown hair was slicked to one side, a suit jacket tossed on over a slightly crumpled shirt. Looked like he had borrowed both from a big brother, like he knew he needed to make a good impression in a hurry. Wherever he was going, whoever he was seeing, he wanted to look his best.
The boy smiled. I shouldn’t have called him a boy, really, he couldn’t have been much younger than thirty, but there was something about the look on his face that reminded me more of a child than a man.
“I hope so,” he replied. Always some variation of that – no certainty, just some faith that it would all turn out alright.
“No, I know so,” he corrected himself, like it was a habit he was trying to get into.
“You don’t sound so sure,” I remarked, as I whipped the cream into a foam in my bowl, the thick bristles of the brush scratching out a familiar rhythm in the plastic.
“I am, I am,” he replied, letting me guide his head back on to the seat. “Just…nervous, I s’pose.”
There’s something about cutting someone’s hair or shaving their face that makes them come out with the stuff they’d never say to anyone else. Something about being so near to someone without having to look in their eyes – makes them think of confession, I reckon.
“About what?” I asked. As I placed the sharp side of the razor against his cheek and steered it towards his jaw, I tried to concentrate.
“Never been this kind of man before,” he replied.
“A married one?”
“Something like that. It’s the biggest commitment I’ve ever made, for sure.”
There was something of a religious zeal to the words as he spoke them. Sureness of the newly converted. I recognized it well now; that was how they all were. In the year or so since I had starting noticing them, they had all had that same air to them. Hurriedly convincing themselves of whatever they had chosen. Gaps in the smiles, full set of teeth or not.
It had started with one a week, if that, and soon, they were coming almost every day. As we headed to the end of the year, it seemed there were more and more. All these boys, all these cars, all these smiles, and then all that silence. Never made sense to me that they could make so much noise coming in and not a peep coming out, that I could hear, anyway.
I slid the razor over his throat, carefully avoiding the pulse of his blood under his neck. His heartrate seemed elevated, and there was a sheen of swear over his collarbone – he really wasn’t lying about those nerves.
“Sir, if you don’t mind me asking,” I remarked, as I continued the shave. “You seem awfully nervous. Whatever you’re going to, is it worth this much-“
He cut me off before I could even get the words out. Not the first time. Normally, they would take any vague offer of dissent with a sharp affirmation that they had made their choice and were happy with it. No matter how carefully I tried to drop it into the conversation, they met me with a sharp, cold cut-off that told me exactly where I stood in all of this.
“Alright,” I muttered, and I moved to the other side, wiping off the foam that had built up on the razor’s edge and continuing. He stared straight ahead, his body stiller than it had been before. Even my slight pinprick seemed enough to deflate him a notch.
I fought with myself as I carried on with his shave, slowing my strokes, playing for time. I could have just asked him. I could have just asked him what he and the other boys just like him had been going to. Why none of them seemed to come back. They would climb in those cars and pull around the bend that led out of Fairville, and take the left that led out to the mountains, and that would be the last any of us would see of them. Nobody ever seemed to talk about them, the cloak of an unspoken silence between us. Which, given the interest any newcomers usually brought with them, I knew had to mean something.
Maybe that we all knew it had to happen, and that was the end of it.
I finished up the shave, used the towel to wipe his baby-fresh skin dry as I tilted the chair back forward so that he could look at himself in the mirror. He looked even younger now, with his face fresh-shaved, and a twinge of guilt bit at the top of my spine.
I could tell him not to go. Maybe offer him a drink, to celebrate? Might make it easier to get a little truth out of him, if I wanted to hear it.
He rose to his feet, pulled out his wallet, and headed over to the counter. I followed him, trying to find something, some way that I could keep him around a little longer. The sun was beginning to set, and he seemed ever more aware of the time, glancing at the cheap timepiece on his wrist and grimacing.
“Thanks,” he muttered, as he pushed the money over to me – big tip, generous, like he knew he wasn’t going to have much use for it soon.
“Of course,” I replied. Last chance – last chance to stop him. He pushed his wallet back in his pocket and tugged his jacket down, checking his hair in a mirror before he reached for the door.
I found myself calling after him. I had never done it before – thought to plenty of times, but never believed I would find the nerve to do it.
“What?” The boy asked, one foot tapping on the dust outside impatiently.
“You come back this way,” I blurted out. “You stop in for another shave, alright? On the house. Special for visitors.”
He eyed me for a moment, like I had thrown him down a challenge. But then, he replaced his incredulity with the sunny smile that he had worn when he had walked through the door.
“I will,” he replied. “When I come back.”
And with that, he let the door fall shut behind him, and left me staring at the cash on my desk with a smudge of shaving cream on my apron. And wondering if he had meant what he’d said – if he really intended to come back. Or if he even believed he could.