The Demon Barber of Cascade.
A story for Sentinel Thursday, using the prompt “keep your chin up”
Summary: Jim gets a shave, and a clue
Now he’s hammering on the door. I look up at the cabinet mirror that’s already starting to steam up and my poor, weary face stares back; lined, haggard, unkempt and still slightly singed.
“Sandburg, go away! Can’t you just let me have a modicum of privacy, for Pete’s sake?”
“Can I hear water running? Is that the hot water running, Jim?” His voice is slightly muffled by the door between us, but his irritation comes through loud and clear.
My reflection and I meet as I rest my forehead on the cold mirror. Sandburg’s not the only one who can do irritation.
“Yes, you can hear the damn water running. Congratulations. Maybe this means you’ve got Sentinel hearing, too. Why don’t you just go off and do some tests on yourself somewhere. Preferably Wisconsin.”
The door opens. He’s standing on the threshold with his arms folded across his chest, looking the personification of pissed.
“Have we not just spent the last twenty minutes dressing your hands? Have you forgotten that those dressings have to remain dry, or we have to do the whole damn thing all over again?”
He darts in past me, turns off the faucet, pulls the stopper out of the basin and retreats back to the doorway before I’ve had a chance to retaliate.
“No, I’ve not forgotten. I’ve also not forgotten that while they’re on I’m subject to your tender ministrations, and God knows that’s incentive enough for me to want them to heal in record time, but….”
I pause, suddenly weary, and sit down on the edge of the tub, gazing at the two mummified appendages at the ends of my arms. Why did life have to be so goddamn complicated?
“But what, Jim?" He’s still snippy. Why the hell is he so snippy when I’m the one with the burns and the discomfort and the sheer aggravation of trying to get along with a couple of golf clubs for hands? I look up at him and return his glare.
“I want a shave, dammit! My face itches, I look like a street bum. I’m tired and I’m uncomfortable and I just want my face to be clean….”
“You’re clean! We just washed….”
“Oh, please, don’t remind me.”
“And anyway, we decided you didn’t need a shave today.”
“No, Sandburg, you decided. I wasn’t allowed much of a say. And now I’ve reflected on the matter, given there’s jack all I can do right now other than just reflect on things, I’ve decided I do want a shave. And that’s what I’m going to do!”
I’m about to haul myself up when he puts a hand on my shoulder and presses me back down again onto the edge of the tub. With his other hand he reaches over, and turns the hot water back on.
“Why didn’t you just say, you big jerk, instead of getting all riled up and hostile about it?”
I look up at him sharply, ready to snap something back about how much he seems to be enjoying making my life a misery, when I see his face. The mask of annoyance has gone. There are signs of fatigue and worry there, but they’re softened by a sweet, wry smile and a look of resignation. Yeah, I guess I really am not the best patient in the world, and I’ve not been making things easy for him these past few days.
“Okay,” he continues, picking up a large towel from the rail and draping it around my shoulders. “Are you sitting comfortably, sir?” He takes my chin in his fingers and turns my face this way and that, scrutinising.
“You know, the designer stubble look suits you, sir,” he says, starting to camp it up. “Strong, feral, exotic almost - less anally-retentive…..”
I pull my chin away from his hand and return his wicked little grin with one of my better glares.
“Get on with it, jackass!”
“Don’t piss off the barber, man.” he replies amiably. “He’s the one with the razor blade.”
There’s a cloud of steam as a washcloth is wrung out, and, before I can react, my face is enveloped in hot fabric. I manage a “mmmmmph!” of surprise, already primed to hate the whole thing right from the get-go, when something clicks in me. Possibly it’s the firm yet gentle pressure on my head as he moulds the cloth to my face and helps the steam sink into every pore; or maybe it’s the sudden, shocking realisation that he’s got me, I can do this – I can actually relax and let someone else take care of me without my bursting a blood vessel at the perceived indignity. Whatever, I feel myself relax with a whoosh as I slump my shoulders and lean into the hot compress.
He kneads a little more with his hands, pressing gently and smoothing the cloth around my ears and mouth. I can now manage a fairly contented “Mmmm-hmmmm”, and am just starting to fully unbend when the cloth disappears, and he’s there grinning at me. I feel a bit dazed, and I guess I must look it, because he gives me a little quizzical look.
“You okay there, man?”
No need to give anything away…
“Just get on with it, Sandburg”
He turns away to the basin with a little private smile. There is a brief clatter as he prepares the razor and opens the can of foam.
“You know,” he says, rubbing the foam between his hands and then smoothing it over my face – I’m trying hard not to squirm – “ancient cultures are full of shaving rituals. It can be religious, or to do with hierarchy, or to prepare for battle. Kind of readying the person for the afterlife. Crusaders would…."
And so it goes on. I just sit there, balancing precariously on the edge of the tub while his voice floats over the top of my head with his soothing, by now incomprehensible, words and his hands make their firm passage over my cheeks and chin, and linger along my upper lip. I start to dial up the sensation, enjoying the feel of the cool foam and the light pressure of the massage. The tension in me of the past few days leaches out, and by the sound of his voice, it’s disappearing fast from him, too.
He finishes with the foam, giving me a quick grin, and reaches for the razor. I feel the need to be Ellison again for a moment, just to prove to myself I haven’t lost it completely.
“Just be careful with that, Sandburg.”
“Cool it, Jim. I’m not harbouring ambitions of being Sweeney Todd - it’s a safety razor. And, you know, I have been shaving myself for a number of years now. I’ve got the hang of it.”
I can only manage another doubtful “Hmmmmph” as he takes my chin in his hand and starts to stroke the blade across my cheek. I try to look down at what he’s doing.
“Keep your chin up, man. I need access here…”
This is nothing like the perfunctory, functional showering exercise we bitched our way through not half an hour before, with me standing in the tub, my bandaged hands protruding from the shower curtain while he hosed me down with the shower-head, muttering imprecations about Sentinels who won’t trust their own senses and wander into burning buildings when there is absolutely no need, man. This is … intimacy.
Slow, precise, delicate…. tender. The only sound is the rasp of the blade and the gently huff of our breaths, with the occasional swish of water as he rinses out the razor. I can feel his exhalations on my face, tickling my eyelashes, warm and sweet. I look up again into his eyes, but he is totally focused on his task. I can see how his pupils follow the stroke of the blade and yet are still flicking around the areas of my skin that he’s already covered, checking for missed bits. He catches my glance for a moment, and the edges of his eyes wrinkle in a smile.
“You’re doing good, big guy.”
He tilts my face gently, moving to my throat. I feel so exposed to him - my veins, my arteries, all my life blood surging through my neck and pulsing with life - and it’s all in his hands. And I know, right there and then, that’s exactly how it should be.
And suddenly it’s over. The washcloth is back, removing all traces of the foam. He rinses it again, in cold now, and refreshes my skin. I find myself leaning into the pressure, but then he pulls away gently.
“All done, man. Feel better?”
I allow myself a smile.
“Lots. Thanks, Chief. Really, thanks.”
His smile becomes even more sardonic as I impress him with my effusive gratitude.
“Any time, man.” He turns to go.
“You know,” I say hastily, not really wanting the moment to end, but with no idea what’s going to prolong it, “I might need to ask you to do this again. You know, because… my hands….”
He looks at me hard then, and raises an eyebrow. I press on.
“It takes me a while to get used to this sort of stuff, is all,” I finish lamely.
I can see him pondering the possible double-meaning of my words. Hell, even I’m pondering them.
“That’s okay, Jim,” he replies as he turns to go. “I’m a patient man.”
And then I’m in the bathroom on my own. I stop myself only just in time from trying to put my face in my hands, and instead stare dumbly at the bandaged stumps.
How did I miss this? What happens next? And even more important, how long can I wait?