It was a coastal town, affluent in nature but cool to the touch. It was a place where the young fell in love again and again every summer and spent the school year in a fine balance between academic readings and sandy beaches. It was a place where the elderly reclined back in retirement, listening to the consistent rush of ending waves as each held a memory that broke into a thousand others as they crashed. Between the elderly and the young, there was a vast array of people who spent their Saturday evenings glancing through bordered windows of specialty shops searching for their most beloved apparel. They rode their beach cruisers on scenic routes of mystic evenings and spent the nights in local restaurants receiving the most hospitable catering to meet their custom appetites.
North of the neighborhoods and shopping district featured the town’s most historical monument. It stood 127 feet high—a lighthouse, pure of any color. Its old purpose was to guide in desperate sailors from long journeys through the blinding fog, but now it just stood as a reminder of a forgotten history. The great wonder had been retired for a good 50 years and only mentioned from time to time in long, fabricated stories told by wistful grandparents.
During this particular summer, the lighthouse wasn’t a symbol of the town’s nostalgic past but now served to warn the town if a fire was close by. For several years, distant field fires had threatened the town, spreading ominously by a dry summer wind. The highway divided the town from foothills covered with fire hazards, but if a fire did cross the highway, the first thing in its path would be the lighthouse. From there, it could take an easy stroll to the town.
In the middle of downtown, there was a barbershop untouched since the 1950s. The spiral red and white cone was still on the outside display, and the inside contained four large workstations with scissors, black combs, blow dryers, hair gels, etc.
Sarah Keys, one of the hair stylists, had decided that she simply wanted to cut hair for a living, despite her parents’ desire to see their daughter go to college. Everyday was routine. She would often bicker and complain about her inconvenient work schedule that separated her from weekend activities, but her friends had all grown up and had families. Now, weekends were spent visiting her elderly parents and hanging out with a cat who faithfully waited for her from the perch on the windowsill everyday. And he would fall asleep shortly after her arrival.
The day before when she came home from work, the mixture of the marine cloud and ash that was blown from the northern fires had turned the summer day into a premature evening. From her second floor apartment, she could see the orange-red lights in the distance, and she saw them as something beautiful… maybe it was just the bright contrasting colors in the darkness, or maybe it was because they made a difference in the world—not a good difference, but more of a difference than a simple hair stylist. Her cat meowed and soon lay down to sleep.
At work the following day, she had her usual clientele: Mrs. Washington, who wanted her roots dyed from gray to her youthful black; Mr. Hernandez, who would talk about his son’s little league victories until he left the shop; Tommy Teagarden, who was in for his seasonal buzz cut; and many more of the town’s idiosyncratic characters. Today, however, every customer had one conversation in common. They all mentioned the fire and gave their own self-assured input on whether or not the fire would cross the highway. It had never happened before, but there were summers when it came close. If the lighthouse caught fire, the whole town would know that it was time to quickly grab their belongings and leave.
When closing time approached, Adriana, the only other hair stylist still working, went to flip the sun bleached sign over and lock the door. As she turned the lock, the door sprung open, knocking her back some.
“Hello, I sure hope there’s time for one more. Oh, good mercy, there is, there is!” a wide, black woman said as she entered with a line of people behind her.
Adriana rolled her eyes and said, “Sorry, we’re already closed. There’s no way we can cut all their hair.”
The group entered in almost a circus-like manner. One man wore a helmet and half-skipped as he walked. A woman was wearing an oversized faded cartoon t-shirt with sweatpants that were hiked high, showing her naked ankles. Another man moaned, and another shouted out his words as he spoke incoherently to the others. Then there was one in the middle who stood nervously as the caretaker spoke to the hair stylist.
“Oh no, honey. They’re all getting an ice cream next door, only Ethan needs a haircut.”
“Adriana, I can take him,” Sarah said forcing a smile.
“Oh goodness! Ethan, go ahead and get over there in that seat. She’s gonna do you up well,” the caretaker directed.
Adriana rolled her eyes and began the redundant process of closing down the store while Ethan made his way to the seat, shuffling his feet through the temporary mosaic mess of multi-colored hair on the ground. At that moment, a middle-aged, acne scarred woman entered halfway in the door from outside and hollered, “Fay, you got him taken care of?” She was the other caretaker.
“Yeah, all good, honey,” Fay replied.
The acne scarred woman called out to the others in a singsong, “Come on guys, let’s go get your ice cream. It’s ice cream time. Ice cream time.”
Smiles took over their faces, as one clapped his hands in a robot manner. Another yelled, “Ice cream! Ice cream!” in a low voice heavy on vowels. Adriana went into the back, and Sarah, Ethan, and Fay were the only ones left in the shop.
Sarah noticed Ethan’s sharp red hair. She had seen this type of thick, red hair before but normally accompanied by freckles but not with Ethan. Ethan’s face was clear—pale and clean except for the tired shadows under his eyes. His hair came over his ears and had been parted the best he could to keep it from falling in his eyes. He wore a pair of khaki pants and a plaid shirt tucked in.
“So what are we doing here today?” Sarah asked in her cordial tone.
Ethan looked to Fay for guidance. “Go ahead, honey. Tell her how you want it.”
Ethan turned nervously to Sarah. His unbalanced hand pointed to his hair, “I want it cut short in the back but not too short in the front.”
Sarah responded, “That won’t be too hard. Short in the back, not so short in the front.”
She began to comb through his heavy, thick red hair. The comb strokes waved through his fiery flames.
“No! Stop!” Ethan voiced in a panic.
Sarah jumped back, startled.
“What’s a matter, honey?” Fay asked.
“I want it cut short…” he froze searching for his words that were once so easy to find but now a challenge. “Short on the sides. I want it cut short on the sides too.”
“That will be no problem,” Sarah went back to the comb and pulled out the scissors.
Thick chunks of red flickered far from his head onto the black wrapped around him. Ethan absorbed her every cut with great concern.
After a few minutes, he broke out, “Short on the sides too!”
“I know, I haven’t gotten to the sides yet, but I will. Don’t worry.” Sarah was very tense, not knowing when another unpredictable outburst would take place. Fay saw this too.
“Ethan, calm down there. The young lady gonna make your hair look real nice.” Fay then turned to Sarah. “He’s a little nervous; he gets to see his family tonight.”
Sarah responded, “How wonderful! You’re going to see your parents or brother and sister?”
Ethan didn’t say anything but just sat there in another world.
Fay finally responded for him, “No, his wife and children. He gets to see them about every six months.”
“Oh, what does your wife do?” she asked more to Fay this time.
“She’s some manager for some oil company. He has two babies too. Well, not so much babies anymore. I think, if I’m right, they’re in high school now. A boy and girl.” She turned to Ethan, “Am I right?”
Ethan nodded cautiously, not wanting to interfere with the haircut.
At this time, Sarah noticed a scar on the left side of his head, hidden deep underneath thick hair. “You got a pretty deep scar here under this beautiful hair.”
“It’s from the accident,” Fay answered.
“Ethan was hit by a car when he was crossing the street some seven years ago.”
Sarah looked to Fay for details.
“It was the day before Valentines. He was out shopping for his wife. I guess the driver didn’t even see him because the fog was so thick that evening. Oh, dear, bless his heart. He used to be a schoolteacher, before the accident. Pretty good one too. At least the kids sure loved him. He used to get so many letters from them, but most of them all grown up now.”
Ethan continued to sit still as the clipping of scissors was intensified by the silence. Sarah looked at him now as she cut more of the thick red. She could see a different man inside that body. One who could have been attractive once and even charming. One who encourage and taught young children. One with a passionate fire that burned so bright that it consumed all, even himself.
The door suddenly burst open with a man shouting out of breath, “Fire at the lighthouse! The fire’s at the lighthouse! You have about half an hour to clear this area.” Then he was gone.
Adriana came rushing out from the back. “Sarah, you have to get out of here!” And she was gone.
Sarah began to put down her comb and scissors when Ethan’s eyes grew in size, “You got to cut the back short. The front, not so short, but the back, cut the back short.”
“Ethan, honey, we have to leave, the fire crossed the highway,” Fay attempted to reason.
“No, the back should be short, like the sides. The front, not so short!”
“Sorry, Ethan, but we gotta go now.” Fay said to Sarah more quietly, “He gets this way before he sees his wife and kids. He wants to look like he did before the accident. Poor child… he knows.”
Sarah looked at Ethan sitting there in the chair. She looked outside and thought about her apartment. Most of her valuables were already packed due to the warning on the radio a few days before. She would still have enough time to grab her things and cat and drive to safety. So she said, “We can finish; there’s enough time.”
Ethan looked up at her with a thankful smile from that different world he was in. That smile did something to Sarah. It made her realize that she had finally made a difference in the world—and it was a good one.
The next seven or so minutes were filled with joyous exchanges from the three people in that little barbershop as the precise chops of scissors and the strokes of the black comb made Ethan look about seven years younger.
He left the barbershop with Fay and traveled away to safety where he would be reunited with his wife and children once again, a little more like himself.
Sarah quickly locked up the shop and looked into the distance for the fire. She saw lights but thought there should be sufficient time to go to her apartment before the fire arrived, if it even would arrive. As she got in her car, she jammed the key into the ignition of the old junker but was met with the notorious repetition of clicks. She turned again. More clicks. She thought about her cat, and said, “Come on now!” as she gave it one more turn… off she went.
As she approached her apartment, she was frightened to see the fire was already upon the evacuated homes of her surrounding neighbors. With the push of the rising wind, sporadic bushes around the empty complex now glowed red in the approaching night. She reminded herself, “Now, don’t turn off the engine. You’ll be fine, just don’t turn off the engine.” She put the car in park and saw her cat in the dimness of the towering window. The electricity was off. As she considered her escape plan for her cat and her packed bag of sentimental belongings, she could hear the cat’s frightened meows.
“I’m coming, Kitty, I’m right here!” she hollered as she trampled up the stairs. But with a paralyzing realization, she looked down to find the car below her turned off. The heavy wind of the night brought an ominous warmth.
With one hand, she grabbed the packed duffle back, and in the other, she squeezed the disoriented feline. She slid down the stairs to her car and turned the key. The clicks continued. She turned the key again. There were less this time. She kept on turning and turning, denying defeat until there was just one single click and no hope that the car would ever start again.
Night had finally settled and the fire flourished.
She would have to run on foot, she thought, so she hurried back up the stairs to see the direction that the fire was heading. With the claustrophobic view, she saw that it had fully surrounded her tiny apartment complex and was filling in.
She froze for a moment until being warmed by a gust of heat and her most trusted companion rubbing against her leg. She picked up the cat and calmly walked into her apartment, where she sat back in her homely recliner and watched the fire battle against the losing darkness. In the distance, she could see a warming glow. She said softly, “That must be the lighthouse, still burning.” She then remembered Ethan and how she cut his hair to make him look more like he once did.
It was nice, she thought. It sure was nice doing something important in life. Still staring out the glass-sliding door of the small balcony, Sarah held her cat in her lap as it gave out a questionable meow seeing the flames rise.
“It’s okay, Kitty. It’s okay now. I finally made a difference in this world.”