The Trade

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The Trade

Ginger Herten

“What happened to your hair?”  Jamie asked in a shaky voice as he reached up to touch the hacked off ends hanging at the side of my face.

“It’s not important.  Can you walk?”  I prompted him placing my hand behind his back to try to get him to sit up.

I was so grateful that he was coming out of the drug induced haze he had been in when we’d rescued him, I wanted to just hold him, but we needed to get moving.   Cath and Neal were both worn out from taking turns carrying him.  I had tried taking a turn, but since I was the smallest of our group by a lot, and weighed at least 50 pounds less than Jamie, it was so awkward and top heavy that I had stumbled about in a manner that was uselessly slow.  So if Jamie could walk even halfway decently, we could start moving again.

Jamie’s eyes were glazed over still, and he was staggering slightly, but he was on his feet and putting one in front of the other.  The drugs were obviously still in his system, but maybe walking would help to clear them out a little faster.  We didn’t know what else might have happened to him while he was in the facility that might also have had something to do with the unconscious state he was in when we found him in his cell marked “Subject 369A4.”

I went over to Cath and Neil and gave each of them a little shake.  They had dozed off for a couple of hours while I sat with Jamie.  I couldn’t sleep till I knew Jamie was going to wake up.

“Jamie’s able to walk, let’s get moving.”

Cath yawned, but got up quickly, shoving Neil off her shoulder.  Neil was soon up too, picking up one of the backpacks and putting it on.  Cath was at the door of the abandoned building first, peering around it cautiously to make sure it was clear.  I slipped my head under one of Jamie’s arms and got him to lean against my shoulder, so I could keep him upright and moving in the right direction.  I’m a few inches shorter than Jamie, so my shoulder was a good height for him to lean on.

I had Jamie on the side of me where my hair had been hacked off, the other side I still had one of the long braids I usually wore.  Jamie’s hand from the arm draped over me, started playing with the end of my long braid.  It was something he’d done a million times, he loved to play with my hair, but now was so not the time for it.  Damn, he was still really stoned, what had they given him?

We made our way out into the open.  Cath took the lead and Neil took the rear, so I could focus on keeping Jamie upright and moving in the middle.  I thought back to the night before last when we had broken into the facility, where the Squid took captured prisoners to use as guinea pigs.

 

Breaking in had gone really smoothly.  Though we had opened several cells, most of the people being held for use as test subjects were too heavily drugged to go anywhere and create the distraction we’d been hoping to make our exit easier.  So on our way out we were running hard with guards at our heels.

Cath was carrying Jamie slung over her shoulders, since she is the strongest of our group.  Neil was carrying most of our stuff, and I was bringing up the rear jamming doors behind us to slow the guards down.

It was at the final door to outside that it happened.  I had to close the heavy garage door from the inside.  So, I had to roll under it as it slid down.  I just made it through.  I lay next to the door calming my breathing glad I hadn’t been crushed.  I only planned to be there for the briefest moment.  I started to get up.

“FUCK!”

Cath and Neil looked back at me still lying next to the door.  I could barely move my head.  One of my long red braids was stuck under the door.  Neil came running back to see what was wrong.

It took him just moments to see what had happened.  He reached down to his boot and pulled out his bowie knife from the sheath he keeps there.

“Turn your head as much as you can.”  He said quickly.  “Ears don’t grow back.”

I turned my head till the hair pulled uncomfortably, but that wasn’t very far.  He cupped one hand over my ear.  I guess he really was worried he might accidentally get the ear.

He started chopping down at the side of my head.  It hurt as he did it, like someone pulling at my hair.  Then when that didn’t seem to be working,  he slipped the blade under my braid and started sawing upward.  It tugged like mad.  It was so close to my ear, I could hear the blade going slish, slish slish as he cut.

Neil was obviously more worried about being fast than gentle.   I was OK with that.

When the tugging stopped finally, and I saw the knife blade spring up, I sat up.

I glanced back at the severed end of my braid emerging from under the door.  We couldn’t stay though, there were guards coming at us from around the building.  A bullet grazed Neil in the arm.  He cursed loudly, but kept running.

I didn’t have time to think much about it at the time, but when I had time to look back on it, I felt sick at how close I had come to having my skull crushed.  Briefly, I started thinking about my hair.

We don’t get to have many nice things.  Constantly moving camp and just trying to survive left too little resources for nice things.

My hair was the nicest thing I had.  It was long and curled into ringlets when it was loose.  The color was a deep auburn red.  It was very thick.  Most of the time I kept it in two braids at the sides of my head.   It was an easy comfortable style, even if I did occasionally get call Pippi Longstocking.

Because it was part of me attached to my head, I didn’t have to worry about forgetting to pack it when we had to move camp fast.  It wasn’t breakable, like keeping something fragile in a backpack.

I had thought I would never lose it, but I just had.  I had lost so much in the close to a decade since I was a student, before the aliens had taken over Earth.  My hair was one of the very few things about my life that hadn’t changed.  Half my hair was now miles and miles behind us stuck under a stupid garage door.

I sighed deeply and we kept moving.

 

A few hours later, Jamie was pretty clear headed, and walking on his own.  I told him everything that had happened from the point that his memory faded out.  He didn’t remember being captured on our mission to tap into the signal from one of the large radio antennas we suspected the Squids used to communicate with their ship.  I told him how I had just finished splicing the last wire I needed to, and closed everything so it would be hidden, when a patrol of human guards, who work for the Squids, came by unexpectedly.  I told him how he had gone off, away from Neil, Cath, and I, to created a distraction in hopes that they wouldn’t discover what I had been doing to the antenna.

It had worked, distracting the guards on patrol, but Jamie got captured.  As they took him away, he kept yelling that he was just foraging for food, so they hopefully wouldn’t check the antenna.  We shadowed the patrol from a distance till they took him to the facility.

Then the hard part was waiting.  We couldn’t try to rescue him too quickly, or they would know we had also been by the antenna and would likely investigate it and discover I had tapped the signal.  Of course though, we wanted to get Jamie out as quickly as possible; we knew they ran experiments on humans at the facility.  We just hoped they hadn’t thought to interrogate Jamie and found out about the antenna.

Then when I finished telling him the break in and rescue part, I had told Jamie everything.  Well, almost everything.

“And your hair?”   He asked.

I didn’t really want to think about it.  “It’s not important.”  I say, just as I had before.  If I say it enough, it will become true.

“I know.”  Jamie looked down at me, with a sad concerned look in his eyes.  “Tell me anyway.”

“It got caught in a door.”

It was hot as hell as we walked, and the short hairs on that side of my head were plastered to my face and neck with sweat.  I wished I still had my braid, the other side was so much more comfortable.  I peeled the hair up and off my face as best I could, but it was too short to make it stay up.  Not thinking about it was becoming harder and harder.

 

We made it back to camp a bit before dawn, and all four of us just fell exhausted into our bedrolls, and slept.  Jamie and I shared one.  I snuggled as close to him as I could stand to in the sweltering heat and humidity.

It was the middle of the day when I woke up.  I went down to the stream to get myself cleaned up.  It was good to wash the sweat and grime off.

As I walked back up the hill, my loose hair dripped down my back on my right side, but on my neck on my left.

When I got back to my tent, I saw Jamie sitting in front of it with Ben, the leader of our group, talking.  “Do you remember anything else from the facility?”  Ben asked.  I guessed Ben had been asking Jamie about any details he could remember about his capture, hoping Jamie had spotted a weakness, or could at least provide some useful information.  We knew so little about the Squids, we didn’t even know what they called themselves, so we called them “Squid” simply because they kind of look like actual squid from the ocean.  Well very vaguely, and we need to call them something.

“Ah, Carrie, I see you’re up.  Feel ready to debrief?”

“Yeah, sure.”  I said, and sat myself next to Jamie.

Jamie was on my right, and looking sadly at my dripping long hair as I talked with Ben.

Ben’s last question was a killer.  “Do you think the tap was discovered?”

“I hope not, it cost us a lot to put it there.”  I looked at Jamie’s black and blue body.

Ben got up, leaving Jamie and me in private.

I turned to Jamie, and smiled at him, I was just so glad we had gotten him back alive.  He was pale and bruised, probably had a broken rib or two, but he was alive.  I kissed him softly on the cheek.

“Want me to comb out your hair before it dries all tangled?” He asked, while fiddling with the wet ends.

I didn’t know what to say.  It was a totally normal thing for him to offer.  Over the months we’d been together, he had done it many times.  Pretty much every time I bathed.  But…I was still trying not to think about my hair.

I just looked down at the ground.

“I’m sorry.”  Jamie said.  “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“It’s ok.  Go get the comb.”

He gently started combing out the long side from the bottom  working his way up gradually,  holding the hair above where he combed so it wouldn’t pull against my scalp.  It took a while,  Longer than usual, since he was occasionally wincing in pain as he reached up.  I should offer to take over since he was in pain, but I figured the physical pain was worth it to him.  Eventually, he had the long side all combed out while my hair was still damp and started combing out the short side which took just moments.

Normally at this point, I would braid my hair.  I could have braided the long side and just let the short side hang down, but I didn’t really want to.  First, I thought I would look ridiculous.  Everyone who saw me asked what happened.  In the brief time I was bathing or walking to and from the stream, I’d already been asked over a dozen times.  I was hating the attention.  Second, I needed to figure out a way to get the shorter side off my face and neck, which were already getting sweaty again.  What could I do? I didn’t have time for anything complex.  I needed to do something practical.

Really, there was only one really practical thing.  I’d pretty much known it as soon as I had allowed myself a moment to actually think about it.  It was why I hadn’t wanted to think about my hair.

I turned and faced Jamie.  I looked into his eyes, and raised my hand to brush through his short hair.  It was just very simply cropped off.  Though not perfectly even, all pretty much one length.  He had slightly coarse brown hair.  His beard was also very short, too.

“How do you get your hair cut?”  I asked him.

“Oh, you’re not going to…”  He went even paler than he already was.  “The short side will grow out.”

“It’s not working.”  I said softly.  “It’s too short to braid, it’s sticking to my neck,  it’s very uncomfortable, it’s completely uneven.  It has to go.”

He reached up and stroked my hair.  He spent a few minutes just looking into my eyes and searching my face.  I think he was hoping that if he just waited a couple of minutes I would change my mind.

“I just borrow scissors from Sophia.”  He finally said.  “Then cut it myself.”

“I’ll go see Sophia then.”  And I stood up and walked off towards Sophia’s tent.

I found her sitting outside her tent, with a needle and thread turning two pairs of very ripped up blue jeans into one pair of heavily patched blue jeans.

“Hi Sophia, can I borrow a pair of scissors.”

“What for?”  She asked before she looked up, then she did look up.  “Oh, I see.  How’d that happen?”

“I wasn’t fast enough rolling under a garage door.”  I said for what seems like the millionth time, I was surprised the rumors hadn’t reached her already.  I was totally detached from the statement, and looked away.

“Are you ok?”  She asked with real concern in her voice.

“I’m fine, don’t worry, nothing but my hair got caught.”  It probably wasn’t what she was really asking, but I didn’t want to think about my feelings.

She nodded.  “Here, this pair will work.  I just sharpened them yesterday.”  She reached into her sewing bag and pulled out a pair of shears.

“Thanks.”  I said and headed back to the tent Jamie and I shared.

 

I sat down in front of our tent, and looked down at the scissors for what felt like ages.  Jamie came over and sat down across from me, he had a small mirror for me to use.

I reached up, and held out one of my long locks and cut it off.  It was dry finally.  I was calm and felt detached.  I knew Jamie was going to miss my hair, but hey, it’s what had to happen.

I held the severed lock in my hand, looking down at it.  I could feel the wall I had built up weakening.  The calm detachment of just moments ago, was disappearing.  Part of how I had managed to pretend that it wasn’t important was that I hadn’t seen myself, I had barely looked back at the braid I left behind.  The lock of hair in my hand and the mirror Jamie had brought ruined the denial.  My breath was ragged and my eyes started to tear.

Jamie moved over next to me and put an arm around my shoulder.  With that the wall crumbled.  I started crying hard.  Jamie wrapped me tightly in both his arms and I sobbed against his shoulder.

When I was all cried out, Jamie released me from his arms.  “Want me to do it for you?”  He asked gently.  As he wiped tears from my cheeks.

I handed him the scissors and moved to in front of him.  I just nodded, saying nothing.

Jamie reached up and pulled a lock of my hair over my shoulder.  I heard the scissors bite into it and breathed in deep trying to calm myself.  My heart was pounding so fast, it almost drowned out the crunching sound the scissors made going through my hair.  I watched in the mirror as he put the long lock off to the side.

He reached for another lock and the sound started again.  He was cutting the hair roughly.  Just cutting it off a few inches from the scalp.  My eyes followed the lock as he placed it next to the last on the leaf covered ground.

As he separated out another lock, I looked at the mirror.  Most of my long hair was gone by then.  Just a few long curls hung in corkscrews on one side of my head.  Jamie took another lock and and pulled it straight.  He cut it off roughly the same length as the others.   My heart had calmed enough that I could really hear the scissors crunch repeatedly through it.  The sound made my stomach clench.

Three more times he repeated the process till my hair was short all over.  It was a bit uneven still, more so on the side where the braid had to be cut off than the side Jamie had just cut.

“How about I just try to even it up a bit?”  Though he phrased it as a question, his tone made it sound more like a statement.  I treated it as a question though.

I shook my head.  “I want it cropped short like yours so I don’t have it bothering me.”

“Really?”

“It’s hot and uncomfortable.  I’ve been wanting to get rid of it for ages anyway.”  I was telling the truth about the first part, but the second part was a lie.  Before the garage door I had loved my hair and wouldn’t have dreamed of cutting it just for a little bit of comfort.

“You don’t sound sure.”

Damn it.  Why could he tell it was a lie?  I didn’t want to talk about the truth.  I didn’t want to say that I needed to punish myself for causing the delay at the door.  Before that moment, I hadn’t even realized that was part of why I didn’t even want to try to find another way to get my hair off my face.  Truth was, my stupid hair had slowed us down.  Cath standing there carrying Jamie, both of them completely vulnerable waiting for Neil to free me from that garage door.  We could have all died, and Neil got hurt, and it was because I was vain.  I wasn’t going to be that anymore.  I am stronger than that.

“If you don’t want to do it for me, I’ll take care of it myself.”  I held up my hand up for the scissors.

Jamie didn’t hand them to me though.  He stared down at them for a few moments.  Finally he took a deep sigh and began.

He buried his fingers in the hair above my left ear and started cutting against his fingers.  A big chunk of my hair fell.  It hit my shoulder, then rolled down to my lap.  Then more followed.

He was using the width of his fingers as a rough guide for the length.  When he had finally cut all the hair sticking out between his fingers off, he moved his hands and I could see how short this cut was going to be.

He buried his fingers back into the hair, behind  where he had before, and started cutting again.  Each quick crunch was followed by another chunk of hair falling next to me or in my lap.

When he started on the back, I picked up some of the hair in my lap and started playing with it.  The soft red curls felt so springy.

The feel of his fingers against the back of my head as the scissors crunched through the hair on the back of my head were firm and reassuring.

He was moving to the front again on the side where the braid I left under the door had been.  I was so aware of him as he brushed my ear as he ran his fingers up into the hair above it.  I could see what he was doing in the mirror again.  I watched as he just cut off all the hair that stuck out between his fingers.  The hair fell once again on my shoulders.  Tumbled to my lap adding to the pile inside my crossed legs.

Jamie scootched around me.   He started going back over the already cut areas, at a slightly different angle.  As he evened things out more, very short hair fell about me and stuck to my sweaty bare skin.  After a bit, the back and sides were all mostly the same length.

“I’ll just even up the top a bit and leave it longer.”  Jamie tried to convince me, as he tousled the several inches of hair I still had on top.

From a practical point of view, it could easily work.  It wouldn’t be hard to tie back the longer hair on top.   I didn’t want my hair to ever get in the way again though.

“No.”  I said in a tired distant voice.  “Short all over.”

Jamie looked into my eyes through the mirror.  He seemed to be searching for an answer to why I was so determined about this.  After a bit he gave up searching, let out a deep breath and crooked up the side of his mouth.

He bent his fingers slightly as he buried them into the hair on top, and took smaller snips at the tops of his knuckles.  He was cutting the top very slightly longer than he had the sides.

I considered calling him out on not cutting the top as short, but decided to just let it go.  It would be enough and Jamie was trying his best.

As he was cutting the top, I started brushing off my once again sweaty neck.  It wasn’t just the the loose cut hairs that were stuck there, even the about half or three quarter inch long cropped hair was sticking and still pretty uncomfortable.

“Jamie, when you’re done with the top, can you make the bit just above my neck a bit shorter?”

“I don’t really know what I’m doing” Jamie pointed out.  “I’m just muddling through here.  I can manage to get it sort of even by using my fingers as a guide, but shorter than that I don’t think I can keep it even.”

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, I just want it comfortable.”

“I’ll see what I can do after I finish the top.”  Jamie promised with a sigh.

After the top, he got up saying he’d be right back.  He had my comb as he returned.  The comb he usually used to detangle my long curls.

Instead of using it to comb out my hair this time, he placed it into the hair at my neckline and started cutting the hair against the comb.  Little prickles of hair started falling on my neck and shoulders.

When he finished, I reached up with both hands and rub my hands over the thick pelt of cropped hair on my head.  It was so short.  I felt completely different.  I looked at the mirror and saw a warrior.

A feeling of deep calm and letting go spread through me.  It was cathartic.  I had let go of so much with the last of my hair.  I had become a harder, less vulnerable person.  Even though it seems like it shouldn’t have worked in this contradictory way, it also made me more open.  I was able to admit to myself how much Jamie meant to me.

I stood up and started dusting myself off with my back turned to Jamie.

“Are you still the same girl who needs me”  I could hear worry in his voice.

“I haven’t been a girl for years, and I never needed you.”  I wasn’t trying to be cold, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth without it sounding that way.  “I’ve been the woman who could help save your ass since the day you met me.  Now, I just look more the part on the outside.”

I turned around, squatted down, and cupped Jamie’s face in my hands, and I looked into his eyes and said it for the first time in the months we’d been together.

“I love you.”

And, I kissed him deeply before he had a chance to answer.  I had traded my hair for Jamie, and he was worth it.  The only question was if he was going to stick around now that the hair he loved to comb and play with was gone.

When I pulled back from the kiss Jamie was smiling.

“You need another bath.”  He said.  “How about instead of going to the wide spot in the stream where we’ll run into half the camp, we head over to that little water fall.  I think the cool water running over me might sooth the bruises enough that if you are very very gentle, you can enjoy the ass you saved.”

I guess he was going to stick around.

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