Victor continued his trek west on Government Street, walking down the middle of the road through the afternoon. He killed every zombie he came across, hoping to find one of them carrying keys, but he had no such luck. There were keys in the pockets of three zombies, but according to the panic buttons on the key fobs, none of the zombies were anywhere near their cars. Every half-block he pushed the panic button on each key-chain. As he walked it was increasingly harder to stay busy, and staying busy was how he avoided thinking. The rain hadn’t let up a bit all day. Victor was frozen through and through, every step elevated the misery of this whole trip.
At the corner of Roper and Government he noticed a bed and breakfast that looked inviting. He stopped walking for a second and stopped in the middle of the street, standing in the rain looking stupidly at the building on the left. It was an antebellum mansion, old growth trees surrounded the property, all with Spanish moss hanging from the leafless limbs. As he stared, he realized that he hadn’t eaten in almost twenty-four hours. The front door was closed and there was a newer ford ranger pickup truck in the parking area.
Victor walked up the three brick steps onto the porch and knocked on the door. Not out of any sense of habit, but because it usually drew the zombies, and a door was a nice bottleneck. It was the easiest place to dispatch the former inhabitants.
As he stood at the red painted extra wide front door of the house, looking at the antique glass sidelights, he caught movement inside the house. A chair scraped against the floor, and Victor heard a single slow pair of footfalls coming towards the door. He stepped to the side and drew his hatchet. To his surprise, he heard the deadbolt click in the door.
“Oh, a super,” he thought. “This might be entertaining,” but that thought didn’t ring true. Something wasn’t right, a super wouldn’t just come to the door. He switched to aura view and was surprised to see a rainbow of swirling color through the door. “Hello!” he called out.
The ancient door opened wide with a creak. The shortest, oldest woman Victor may have ever seen stood in the doorway. Her pure white hair was clean and stood straight out from her head. Most of it was tamed by a large paisley scarf. “Oh, look Leeland! We have a guest! We haven’t had a guest in so long! Come in, come in. Did you have a reservation? What’s your name?”
“Victor Tookes, ma’am. I don’t have a reservation, and I’m afraid I don’t have much in the way of money. Would you be willing to trade some work for a room for the night and a hot meal? I’m pretty handy.”
“Come in. Come in before you catch your death of cold!” She said. “Leeland! We have a guest!” She yelled loud enough to wake the dead. Which, it occurred to Victor, wasn’t very loud these days. Victor stepped into the wood paneled foyer. It was not that terrible seventies wood paneling, but actual real wood. The detail and craftsmanship of the woodwork in the house would rival even Marshall’s woodworking skills.
“The Rotelle House has never turned away a traveler in need!” she said, followed quickly by a disapproving look down at the floor. “Ohh deary, you’re dripping all over my rugs!” Then even louder than before, “Leeland! We have a guest! Bring a towel!”
“I’m a-comin’ mother! For cryin’ out loud, you don’t have to scream. Hello young man! It’s good to see you!” The man Victor assumed was Leeland said, sticking his hand out. “What’s your name, son?”
“Victor Tookes, sir. I was just telling your wife that I don’t have any money; I stopped carrying a wallet a few months ago,” he said, shaking the old man’s hand. Leeland was no more than five and a half feet tall. His hair was combed back in a white pompadour. He had white sideburns down to his earlobes that spread out onto his cheeks, and very kind eyes. His clothes were freshly pressed; the plaid button-down shirt he wore still had creases down the sleeves, and his blue jeans had creases down the front.
“You’re not one of them hippies, are ya, boy? Ya don’t look like a hippie with that hair, although you could use a cut and a shave.”
“No sir, not a hippie sir, just in need of a shave. Things have been pretty crazy lately, I just haven’t had time.”
“Son, you’ll never get ahead in life without a clean shave and a haircut. I was a barber for forty years, come on in and I’ll get you cleaned right up.”
“Mother, fetch my bag, please. I have a customer!” Leeland clapped his hands together excitedly. “Right this way son. What did you say your name was?”
“Victor, Victor Tookes. I’m afraid we haven’t been properly introduced,” said Victor sticking his hand out again. “What’s your name sir?”
“Leeland Rotelle,” he said shaking Victor’s hand for the second time. “The shop is right this way. Take your shirt off, Mother will dry it for you.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Rotelle. I appreciate your kindness,” said Victor. He paused for a second and then stripped his tee-shirt off over his head. Victor looked at himself in the mirror in hallway. He was a mess, and in the best shape of his life. He was thin and toned, his muscles didn’t stand out like Marshalls, but there was no softness under his skin.
Mrs. Rotelle handed Victor a towel and handed Leeland a worn black leather bag with a brass zipper holding the top closed. The bag was shaped like an antique doctor’s bag, and clinked as Leeland carried it towards a door at the back of the house.
The three of them passed through the dining room, painted deep red with a twelve person antique dining table in the middle. Even with the massive table there was still space in the cavernous room for two wingback chairs, an ottoman, and a buffet table that looked like it could hold enough dishes for twelve in its cabinets and enough food for twelve on its top.
“This is a beautiful home,” said Victor. What he really wanted to say was “This whole situation is really weird. Do you know there are zombies out there?”
“Oh, thank you, Deary. This was my grandmother’s home. My mother lived here with us until she passed in eighty-seven, and since then it’s been just Leeland and me.”
Leeland looked at Victor and mouthed “Thank God” as Mrs. Rotelle continued her narrative.
“My grandmother always said never turn down a traveler in need. My mother kept that tradition, when Leeland here got back from Korea; he looked a lot like you. He was a worn out traveler who needed a shave and a haircut. He opened the barber shop in the back parlor, and we’ve been in love ever since. He was so handsome back then.”
Victor wasn’t quite sure how crazy these people were, but he decided to go with it. They seemed pretty harmless, more eccentric than dangerous.
Leeland puffed his chest out and said “Still wear the same size pants I did when I got back. Kept myself in shape for fifty years. Ya never know when the commies are cominm’ back.” He opened the door to the barber shop. Inside were four antique barber chairs, each with a long leather strop hanging from the back. It reminded Victor of the place he got his hair cut when he was a boy. It was dim inside the room, despite the huge windows that made up one whole wall.
Leeland walked into the room kicking up little tufts of dust into the air. He left footprints in the dust on the floor. Victor wondered if anyone had been in this room in a decade. “Mr. Rotelle, when was the last time you gave a haircut?”
“Oh, it’s been a few days. I did a high and tight flattop for an army boy last week,” Leeland said.
“Leeland, do you know what the date is today?”
“Why, son, of course I do. Today’s Christmas!” He said with a smile.
Somehow Victor had gotten almost two weeks off in his time keeping. He was sure it was the thirteenth of December. “Are you sure? I was thinking it was closer to mid December.”
“Yes sir, December 25th, Nineteen Hunnert Ninety Two,” said Leeland.
“Oh. Bat-shit crazy,” thought Victor. “Do I really want this guy near my neck with a straight razor?”
It frighteningly easy for Victor to allow himself to be pulled into this fantasy world, a place where there were no zombies, where you could make up whatever reality you wanted. It was warm and dry, and these were living people who didn’t try to shoot him. Victor lost himself in the thoughts of what life had been like for this elderly couple. He wondered how they survived in their delusion.
“You gonna sit down, son?” Said Leeland, swatting the chair with a towel.
Victor walked to the chair and sat down. Leeland ran water over a white towel, wrung it out and placed it on Victor’s face. Victor was pleasantly surprised at the warmth of the water. Somehow this couple had hot water.
“Oh,” said Victor. “That feels good. It feels good to be normal for once.”
“What do you mean?”
“My life has been crazy the last few months,” answered Victor. “I’ve been running and fighting for so long, I’m not sure I know how to stop. It’s all that’s left for me.”
“Son, life is about living. You’re not living, you gotta let go of the past, find some pretty little girl and get on with your life,” Leeland said.
“My past won’t stay let go. Every time I think I’ve moved on, it comes back to haunt me.”
“We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one card we have, and that is our attitude.”
Victor closed his eyes and enjoyed the warmth and comfort of the steaming towel. There was something familiar about sitting in a barber’s chair, something normal. Leeland could have been any old barber in any old town. He felt Leeland’s hand on his head, pushing it up. A comb slid through Victor’s longish, greasy hair. A slight tug as the old man grabbed the first lock of hair between his index and middle finger, followed by the familiar snip of a barber’s scissors. Comb, tug, snip. Comb, tug, snip. Leeland worked quickly and efficiently, cutting Victor’s hair. He never asked Victor what kind of haircut he wanted, or how he wanted it styled. The barber cut his hair the way it should be cut; based on the way the hair grew. A good barber didn’t force your hair into a style; he molded the style around the hair. Leeland was a good barber.
The snipping stopped, and Victor heard the water running for a second, followed by a whisking sound. A few seconds later the towel was removed and Victor felt coarse bristles swirling warm shaving lather against his face. Victor knew this was an authentic badger hair brush. Leeland would have nothing less. Before the lather had a chance to cool, Leeland swiped a heavy bladed straight razor across the leather strop hanging on the back of the chair, honing the edge. He held Victor’s head in one hand, pulling the skin of his face tight and dragged the razor lightly down his cheek. Leeland was all business, no shake, no hesitation, this was pure muscle memory. Before Victor could even think about the danger of this guy holding his head in one hand and a razor blade in the other, Leeland wiped his face with a towel and said said “All finished.”
Victor stood up and looked like a new man. He’d always worn his hair clipper short and scrubbed backward. Leeland had cut it short with scissors and laid it down forward. Between the forty pounds he’d lost and the new hair cut, Victor looked ten years younger, and felt fantastic. He rubbed his hand down his cheek, amazed at how close the shave was. There wasn’t a hint of stubble.
“Thank you, Leeland. I can’t tell you how much better I feel,” said Victor.
“Amazing,” said Leeland. “You walked in my house a dead hippie, and going to walk out a living man. It’s nice to meet you, what was your name again?” Leeland stuck out his hand.
“Victor Tookes, sir. I’m pleased to meet you,” said the freshly groomed man, shaking hands again.
“Well, come on Victor Tookes, Mother will have supper ready now, and we have to find you a shirt to wear. You can’t sit down to the supper table without a proper shirt. We had a helper last year who was about your size; nice boy. Never did get his name though. I bet he has some clothes you could wear in his room. It’s right up these stairs, first door on the left.”
Victor walked up the stairs wondering what he’d find in the first door on the left.
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