A Stranger's Boots, part 3: The voice

By Joe Steele
published June 4, 2019

It’s becoming clearer what’s happening to Mike.

Mike wakes up on his back. He’s never been able to sleep well on his back. He throws off the blanket and rubs his gritty eyes. He lifts his head and sees he’s still in his clothes from last night. Rolling out of bed, he steps on the steel toe of one of the boots with his bare foot and grunts with annoyance. The room spins a little and he almost has to sit down again.

“What the fuck,” he mutters. What happened? That’s right, beers.

He zigzags down the hall to the kitchen, finds an espresso pod in a drawer and shoves it into the machine, almost forgetting to put a cup under the spout. Meanwhile he downs a big glass of water. He leans against the doorway to steady himself while the machine does its thing. He makes the mistake of pressing his fresh tattoo against the door frame. He yelps in pain and jumps away. That’ll wake you up.

Mike downs two shots and heads for the sofa to wait for it to kick in. He looks at the white bandage and makes a face. What the fuck. It really hurts. But his head hurts worse, so he’s not going to worry about it right this minute. He flips on the TV. It’s some kind of police drama. A hot dude is smoking a cigarette. He remembers the cigarette he smoked last night. The taste still lingers in his mouth. It’s foul. Then he catches a whiff of himself. He feels gross, skin coated with dried sweat, scalp itchy and greasy. He needs a shower.

In the bathroom he gets naked and turns on the water. The bandage secured around his arm is the last thing left. Grimacing, he gingerly unwraps the tattoo, agitating the raw skin and making it sting furiously all over again. He looks at the tattoo. He yells “Holy fuck!” It’s enormous. For a moment he has tunnel vision and can only see the tattoo. His six-foot, fairly beefy body is otherwise unmarked. The big, dark thing on his arm is like an anvil, pulling him off balance. Mike feels panic rising in his throat as though he’s just discovered a parasite stuck to his body. He wants to scrape it off, run from it, but it’s going to follow him wherever he goes.

Looking away from it, he steps into the shower. The water’s the perfect temperature for the rest of him but for the tattoo it’s way too hot. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Mike yells as he moves his arm out of the water and adjusts the tap with his other hand. He vaguely remembers the tattoo artist telling him to soap up the tattoo on the first morning even if it hurts. It does. Mike winces as he rubs the soapy water across it.

Mostly dried off, he flops naked on his bed. His body is still tired but his brain is ablaze, worrying about the consequences of the tattoo. His job is a non-issue; there are lots of people there with heavy tattoos and generally crazy appearances. But this tattoo isn’t him. Not merely the fact of having a tattoo but even less so its subject matter, a Christian cross so big that someone can make out across the street. I’ve never been to church in his life, he thinks.

He takes deep breaths to calm himself, exhaling through his nose, like a yoga teacher taught him many years ago. In, out, in out. He catches the scent of the sweaty Rangers lying on the floor. He rolls off the bed and jumps into them without thinking, slipping bare feet into the embrace of the cold, still damp leather inside. By the time he’s all laced in, his cock is leaking. With no more than ten brutal strokes he produces a huge load.

He’s seized by the desire to leave, to go anywhere at all, to show off his boots. Otherwise naked, he considers whether to take off the boots in order to put on jeans. It’ll be a lengthy process. He tries putting some jeans on over the boots, but no dice. There’s one other, possible solution.

Never confident enough to wear his kilt outside a Scottish festival, today it’s spot-on. It looks awesome with the boots. He digs around the eBay box for that Black Flag t-shirt. It’s buttery soft and nicely faded, the white printing on the front flaking off just enough to look legit. Whoever owned it cut the sleeves off years ago and washed it many times afterward. It’s snug, and his guns are popping out of the armholes, along with part of his worked-out pecs. A little too tight, and almost too short, but so what.

He checks himself out in the mirror. In the the boots and red plaid, he looks entirely his own man, no fucks given. The tattoo now seems like…. the absolute shit. He can’t remember why he was upset. Needs a piece on the other side to balance it out. Could do that today. He dismisses the brief thought. Having two painful arms at once – no thanks..

At a diner he always walks past but never enters, he eats a massive breakfast – eggs, waffles, and eight slices of bacon. He starts to feel energized again. Wait, he thinks, I don’t eat bacon. Cruelty. Additives. Carcinogens. But it’s gone, all of it, down to crumbs. But it was so good. How did I ever give up bacon, he thinks.

Having walked all over his part of Manhattan the previous day, on impulse he takes the subway to Brooklyn. He hasn’t been across the bridge in a long time. Coming up the stairs he spots a guy raising the blinds in the window of a tiny barber shop. The guy is tall, heavily muscled, with a clean-shaven head and a salt-and-pepper beard down to his collarbone. He’s Mike’s favorite type, although this kind of guy never pays him any attention. He wants a haircut from this guy. He doesn’t care what.

“Got time for me?” Mike says, poking his head through the doorway.

“My first slot canceled. I have thirty minutes to kill,” the guy says. Mike sits in the lone barber chair and the guy throws the cape over him. “What’s it gonna be,” the barber says, moving his hand through Mike’s thick, overgrown hair.

Shave it clean.

The thought is unexpected. Mike’s hot for fully bald dudes but he’s never wanted it for himself. He turns his head to look at the barber, nods upward, toward the guy’s shiny scalp. “I like what you have going on there.” Mike’s already got the beard, with no hair he’d look like this daddy guy… or the dead guy on the driver’s license.

“You still have all of your hair,” the barber says, lifting chunks of hair from Mike’s crown and peering at his scalp. “Save the bald look for when you lose it. It happens to everyone sooner or later.”

“Yeah, but…”

The barber cuts Mike off. “I know what you need.”

The barber swivels the chair around, facing Mike away from the mirror. He parts Mike’s hair to one side and clips the hair on top into place. He’s going to do one of those hipster-dude cuts, long on top, buzzed on the sides, a hard part cut into it, Mike thinks. That could be cool, but for some reason Mike’s got it in his head he wants no hair at all.

The barber parts and clips the hair on the other side, too. Mike’s now not sure what’s coming. Then he rapidly buzzes off everything on the sides of Mike’s head. Big chunks of black, longish hair fall on his shoulders and slide into his lap. So it’s a mohawk. When Mike was younger he was nuts for dudes sporting mohawks, but it’s become rare to see one anymore. The experience of being mohawked – and the feeling of the barber taking control – makes his dick spring to full, rigid length under his kilt, making a tent. Mike’s grateful for the coverage of the cape, so the barber doesn’t see.

The barber then shortens the center strip with scissors. More big chunks of black hair cascade off of Mike’s head. “What about the beard,” the barber says. Mike’s pretty attached to it. Underneath it, he considers his face barely average-looking. “I know what to do with it,” the barber says. “You trust me?” After a long pause, Mike nervously nods his head. His dick softens with the vague anxiety, but not all the way.

The barber buzzes the hair on his cheeks and takes off a wide strip beneath his lower lip. Then he douses Mike with a double handful of foam and shaves every millimeter of skin that he had previously buzzed.

With Mike wiped down and dusted off, the barber turns the chair around so Mike can see. The transformation is profound. The mohawk is short and wide, extending from forehead to crown. A horseshoe mustache is wrapped around his lips, exactly as wide as the mohawk, its ends extending down to Mike’s jaw and a little underneath.

“Holy shit,” Mike says.

The barber laughs. “Yeah,” he says. “Queer punk-rock porn star. Hot.”

Mike half-grins. “It’ll take some getting used to…”

“You look shit-hot,” the barber says, patting Mike’s cheek with a big paw. “I think you’ll get used to that pretty fast.”

Blushing a little, Mike gets out of the chair. His dick is still pushing the fabric of the kilt outward. The plaid pattern isn’t doing enough to disguise it. The barber glances at the lump but says nothing.

The next customer opens the door, looks over at Mike and the barber, and takes a seat in the one little folding chair that the shop has room for. The barber says to Mike “Come back and see me. Every two weeks. I want to keep it looking sharp for you.” He moves his mouth close to Mike’s ear. “Maybe next time I’ll lock the door and we can see what happens.”

Mike is unused to this kind of attention from a hot daddy. He almost doesn’t know what to say, but he leans into his newfound confidence. “What’ll happen is that the next customer will be banging on the door wondering why it’s locked, while I’m riding whatever you’re packing under those jeans.”

The barber laughs loudly. “Anytime, bootboy.”

Outside, Mike feels the breeze and the warmth of the sun on his freshly shaved scalp. It feels completely new and bizarre. Yet there is a feeling of familiarity mixed in. Mike passes a short, wiry, latter-day skinhead type with a shaved head and muttonchops, septum ring so fat he’s not sure how the guy can breathe. Mike sees the guy eye his kilt and boots, then look up to lock eyes with him. Mike gives him a grin and a wink and keeps walking, making a point of not looking back, in case the guy has turned around to look at him.

Good choice on the haircut, Mike thinks. Not sure about the kilt. Wait a second. That wasn’t his thought. He… heard it? He turns around but the little skinhead guy is almost too far down the block to see.

“What?” Mike says, turning in every direction. There’s no one who could have said that. Fuck, Mike thinks. His older brother hears voices all the time; the psych meds make him a zombie so he chooses to live with their relentless chatter. Mike hopes this isn’t the beginning of it for him.

He’s distracted from that dark thought by another text from Eric: “We’re going out again tonight. Come with.” Mike’s pretty sure he can’t do it all again 24 hours later. In the background he still feels a little nausea.

The voice again: Don’t say no yet. Ask him where they are going.

Mike looks all around himself again. “Who the fuck is saying that?”

Without completely intending to, Mike texts Eric back. His fingers feel fat and stiff on the surface of the phone’s display. “Where” is all he manages before pressing send.

Eric’s reply comes back. A different bar, but not too far from the other one.

You’ll feel fine by tonight.

Mike’s eyes go wide but he doesn’t reply to the voice. Freaked out, Mike heads home and spends a good part of the day reading articles on schizophrenia and psychosis. Several hours in, Mike has thoroughly scared himself. He’s convinced he’s going down the same road as his brother.

Walk away from the computer. You’re going to give yourself a stroke.

Oh god, Mike thinks, this is bad. Now it’s telling me to do things. Textbook psychosis.

You’re not crazy. I’m a guy, like you. But I’m not you.

Mike is frozen at the computer, heart racing. He isn’t sure what to do. Call his brother? Go to an ER? He remembers his brother being on psych hold a few times, miserable in a tiny room, strapped down, people watching him through the window.

I’ll prove you’re not crazy. Get the leather jacket from the box.

Mike doesn’t move. I’m losing it, he thinks.

The voice is more firm this time. Go get it.

Mike stands up abruptly and finds the eBay box that he stuffed in the closet. He locates the leather jacket inside. It’s a classic motocross style, black and red leather, shoulder armor, badly banged up. One side of it is almost torn through to the lining.

In the inside left pocket there’s a lighter with initials on it.

Hands trembling, Mike unzips the pocket and feels around. It’s an old-school chrome-plated lighter. He turns it over in his hand. “BMF ” is engraved on the side. “What the fuck,” Mike whispers.

You didn’t know that was there. You’ve never seen it. Like I said, I’m a guy just like you. I’m not here to do anything bad. I’m just here. It’s been cool being in a body again. Seeing the world. Shit’s changed. A lot.

“Omigod you’re the dead guy,” Mike says.

I’m the dead guy. Ben.

“Not happening,” Mike says.

Happening. Not sure what to tell you.

Mike looks at the lighter in his hand. Is the lighter a hallucination too? Is his brain constructing an elaborate, internally consistent, alternate reality to fool him? Forget schizophrenia. This is multiple personality disorder.

How about a smoke? It always calmed me down when I was freaking out.

“What? I don’t…”

But then Mike remembers the cigarette from last night. It was good. He jumps to his feet and grabs his keys from the hook next to the door. Before he knows it he’s blasting through the door of the bodega on the corner. He heads right for the register, elbowing aside an old woman counting out pennies on the counter. He looks at the hundred brands of cigarettes covering the wall behind the cashier guy, who waits for Mike to choose.

American Spirit brown box. Unfiltered.

“American Spirit,” Mike chokes out. “What?”

Brown box.

“Brown box.”

The cashier gives Mike a weird look. “Thirteen,” he says.

Thirteen bucks? Fuck me.

Mike hands the money over. The guy puts the cigarettes on the counter. “Lighter’s on me,” he says, putting a cheap disposable on top.

He makes it just outside the door of the bodega and stops dead. Clumsily he gets the cellophane off the box and tears it open, only to find another paper wrapper inside, which he rips at without finesse. It takes several tries with the shitty lighter to get the cigarette lit. Finally succeeding, he takes a long drag and sucks it in deep. It’s his second cigarette ever. His head spins a little but he feels his whole body warm.

Yeah, that’s the stuff. Missed that.

“Wait a second, are you making me want to smoke or…”

I can’t make you do anything. I can suggest. You have to want it.

Fuck, Mike thinks, now I’m hooked on smoking. I’m gonna die.

Everyone dies. It’s just a matter of how much fun you have first.

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