End of the Road by LS Hawker
Jade Veverka unwrapped the frozen bomb pop she’d bought from the gas station on the corner of Main and 3rd and took a bite. She sat gazing at the pile of magazines on the barbershop coffee table while a rhythmic alarm-clock buzz went off in her head. Not an urgent warning, just buzz buzz buzz.
Her friend and coworker Elias Palomo sat in the barber chair, getting his customary fade crew cut, the same one he’d presumably sported since his plebe days at the Naval Academy. So the background to her mental alarm clock was an actual buzzing from the electric razor punctuated now by a sharp yip of pain from Elias.
“Sorry about that,” the barber said.
Elias rubbed his ear, and Jade attempted to keep her face neutral, looking at his scowl in the mirror.
Buzz buzz buzz.
She leaned forward and fanned the magazines—Popular Mechanics, Sports Illustrated, ESPN—all this month’s issues. Jade took another bite of bomb pop and grinned.
“What are you smiling at?” Elias grumbled, rubbing his nicked ear.
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” Jade said, “but you are not the center of my universe. I do occasionally react to things outside of you. I know it comes as a shock.”
“Shut up,” he said, his dark eyes flashing.
Jade stared now in fascination as the razor tracked upwards on Elias’s skull, his glossy black hair—or what was left of it—uneven, his scalp an angry pink. This guy was the worst hair dresser Jade had ever seen. And the least talkative. In her experience, growing up in rural Ephesus, Kansas, barbers had always fit the stereotype—gregarious and gossipy.
Elias was the shop’s lone customer, and only a few folks walked by outside the window, through which Jade could see the hardware store and the occasional slow passing car.
Buzz buzz buzz.
It struck Jade now that this was less a barbershop than what amounted to a barbershop museum, complete with an actor playing the part of the barber. She wanted to point this out to Elias, but it would mean nothing to him. He’d grown up in Reno, Nevada, a vast metropolis compared to Jade’s 1200-population hometown an hour southeast of this one, which was called Miranda, Kansas.
Not only was this man not a barber, he wasn’t a Kansan either, Jade would have bet money.
“Hey,” she said to him. “What’s your name?”
The man went on butchering as if she hadn’t spoken. Elias’s eyes met Jade’s in the mirror, and his dark thick brows met on either side of a vertical crease, his WTF? wrinkle. He leaned his head away from the razor, finally making the barber pay attention.
“The lady asked you a question,” Elias said.
Jade had to hold in a guffaw. This never failed to tickle her, him referring to her as a lady. No one other than him had ever done that before. Plus she loved the authoritative rumble of his voice, a trait he’d probably developed at Annapolis.
The barber froze, his eyes locked with Elias’s. Weird.
“Need a prompt?” Elias said. “Your name.”
The man cleared his throat.
“Is it classified?”
Jade did guffaw this time, and she watched the barber’s jaw muscles compress as she clapped a hand over her mouth.
“My name’s Richard.”
“Hello, Richard, I’m Elias. This is Jade. We work out at SiPraTech.”
Jade could see from Richard’s face he knew very well where they worked. He nodded and got back to destroying the remains of Elias’s hair.
“Whereabouts you from, Richard?” Jade said.
He pulled the razor away from Elias’s head and blinked at her.
What in the world was this guy’s problem?
Buzz buzz buzz.
Elias emitted a loud sigh, clearly exasperated by the guy’s reticence, and waved a hand as if to say, “Carry on, barber-not-barber.”
Jade laughed again.
“Here,” Richard mumbled. “I’m from here.”
Like hell. What was he, in the witness protection program or something?
And then it hit her. The magazines, every last one of them, was a current issue. In a barbershop. The place where back issues of magazines go to die.
She’d worked for SiPraTech just over three months now, and Miranda, the closest town, had always given her an itch. Something about it was slightly off, but she couldn’t say what. She’d brought it up to her team members—Elias, Berko Deloatch, and Olivia Harman, and each of them had looked at her like she was schitzy. They all came from big cities, so Miranda struck them as weird in general.
Buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz.
As if drawn by static electricity, her eyes tracked to the window where a man in mirrored shades peered into the barbershop. The man had a dark mustache and wore a blue baseball cap pulled low over the sunglasses.
What was he staring at? She glanced behind her, but there was nothing to see but a white wall. When she turned back, the man mouthed something at her, his exaggerated soundless enunciation wringing a sharp intake of breath from her.
“What?” Elias said in response to her gasp.
Was it her imagination, or did this man she’d never seen before say her name?
She looked at Elias, and said, “There’s a man out there—”