I didn’t cut my hair for the first time until I was six. It grew out thin and delicate for years, tickling my ears, then my chin, then the nape of my neck. The ladies who came to my mom for healing fawned over me, tugging through it from the roots, asking my mom what home remedies or spells she used to keep it so beautiful. “He’s a little kid,” she would say. “That’s just how his hair is. No magic required.”
I didn’t know why I had to keep my hair so long. Whenever my mom would rake it back into a ponytail I would ask why I couldn’t shave it all off like the boys at school. “Not until you’re six,” she’d say. “Witches grow their hair out until they’re six. Then we can cut it off. I did the same thing.”
“But you’re a girl! It’s different!”
“But we’re both witches. And little witchies don’t cut their hair.” She’d tickle me. I’d let it go.
I thought she was kidding, calling us witches. I felt like I was going along with an elaborate joke, something that she had maybe explained to me but that I had since forgotten. I remember her brushing through my wet hair after a bath when I said, “I don’t want to be a witch. Girls are witches – boys are wizards.” I pretended to flick a wand at her.
She yanked the brush through a knot at my scalp. “Wizards aren’t real, Grey,” she said. The playfulness usually reserved for conversations about magic was gone from her voice. “Being a witch is in your blood. Wizards are made up. Wands and mythical creatures and…” She trailed off. She silently rubbed tea tree oil on her fingers and dabbed it onto my roots. It burned.
On my sixth birthday, I sat in the backyard with a tarp wrapped around me while my mom shaved my head. I held a Tupperware container in my lap and watched it fill with fine tendrils of hair.
She held up a mirror in front of me when she finished. “I like it,” I said, but I was startled by my face, floating in nothingness, the familiar curtain suddenly gone.
She rubbed a hand over my shorn scalp. The rough skin of her palms caught on the tiny hairs, her touch boring through my skull. I bit my lower lip, concentrating on the slide of wet skin through my teeth to keep from crying.
She smiled knowingly. That was before I hated proving her right. “You can grow it out if you want. Tonight’s a full moon. We can do a growth spell, huh?”
I’ve worn it long ever since.
I came home from school one afternoon to find my mom sprawled out on the couch, a holey crocheted blanket tossed over her shins. Bottles and burnt matches and spell ingredients littered the scuffed-up coffee table. Vermouth. A sprig of lavender in a sealed container. Mineral oil. A wine glass stained with days-old malbec.
I dropped my backpack in the foyer. “How was school?” she asked, as if cued. Her voice croaked against the dry of her throat.
“It was fine.”
“I need you to run an errand for me tonight.”
“I have homework.”
“I need you to run an errand for me tonight,” she repeated. It wasn’t a suggestion. She poured the rest of the bottle of vermouth into the wine glass. It spilled over the rim and created a sticky ring on the table. “The liquor store on Piedmont.”
“It’s less than a mile away. Can’t you go?” I asked.
“Grey, you know I’m not supposed to touch ingredients,” she singsonged. She pushed the blanket onto the floor and sat up, maybe too quickly. She paused, then picked up the empty vermouth bottle and thrust it towards me. “I called in for some red. They’re holding it for me.”
I took the bottle. She called out a gleeful “thank you” as I threw it in the recycling. It clacked against a few other empties before settling to the bottom of the bin.
I rode my bike to the liquor store even though it was raining. Oil slicks glinted rainbow under my tires and my hair slowly frizzed out from the humidity. I hunched over the basket while I pedaled. I remembered a chant my mom taught me for protection when I was young. She made me recite it over and over after I learned to ride without training wheels. I mouthed it silently. The breath of life and the light of my mind creates an enchantment of protection and comfort.
Inside the store, I was met with Cher’s “Dark Lady” over the loudspeakers and the buzz of white-green fluorescent lighting. “Can I help you?” a disembodied voice called from between the aisles after the shimmery bells attached to the door frame stopped ringing.
“Yeah, my mom called about picking up two bottles of red wi—”
“Right.” A man stood up in the middle of an aisle, a case of Bud Light in his arms. He was older than me but not by much, wearing a sweatshirt with felt Greek letters across the chest. “You the son picking up for her?”
“Weird that she sent you,” he said, snaking through the aisles to the cash register. “But my manager said you’re regulars, so I guess it’s not that weird.”
“I mean, it’s a little weird,” I said, leaning on the checkout counter and thumbing through a plastic container of lighters.
“Can I ask why she makes you get alcohol for her then?” The man bent over and placed two bottles of cheap malbec on the counter.
“It’s a long story.” I handed him a stack of crumpled bills.
“She an alcoholic who makes her kid do her bidding or something?”
I laughed. It came out more bitter than I intended. “No. Not really.”
“You sure this isn’t just an elaborate plan where you come in to buy alcohol for your mother who’s actually you?” He opened the cash register drawer and counted out change.
“Not that either, swear.”
I watched the man flick coins into his palm. He counted silently to himself. I kept my eyes on him for a moment, feeling transfixed by the day-old stubble on his chin and the way his mouth moved around the numbers.
“So why isn’t your mom buying her own malbec, then?” he asked, dropping a handful of coins into my hand.
“Told you, it’s weird.”
“I want to know.” He bagged the bottles of wine and gripped the handle tightly, waiting for me to divulge before he handed it over.
I contemplated whether or not I should tell him. I looked at him for a moment and decided he was handsome. When he smiled, his teeth were clean and pointed.
“My mom is a witch, or a healer, or whatever. And I’m her apprentice so I run errands for her.”
“That is a little weird.”
“Are you a witch, too? Or a wizard, maybe.”
I recoiled. “I’m a witch. Wizards don’t exist.” I regretted the words as soon as they left my mouth.
“Don’t exist, huh?”
“It’s a whole…doesn’t matter. I’m witch.”
“Is your hair long ‘cause you’re a witch?”
“Kinda. I mostly just like wearing it long.”
“No witchy backstory to it?”
I touched the ends of my hair, feeling the jaggedness where I had cut a small lock off. It prickled the pads of my fingers. “Sometimes I use it for offerings, but that’s it, really.”
“How about those?” He gestured to my fingers, covered in rings.
“Some of them are witchy,” I said, rolling his word around in my mouth. “This one’s a rune. This one I found one night on my altar after casting a spell so I decided to keep it.” I rotated a skinny silver band around my thumb. “The rest are from Goodwill.”
“Hm.” He pushed the bag across the counter, the bottles clicking together. “Can’t say I ever met a witch. Don’t curse me, or anything.”
“I won’t.” I laughed uneasily. It was a joke to him, but I wanted to be in on it, too. I took the bag in my arms and started to leave. “I’ll see you.”
“Wait. What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t. It’s Grey.”
“Your name is Grey? Man.”
“A witch boy named Grey with long-ass hair. You’re like a cartoon character or something.”
“I’m Jake,” he offered.
“See you, Jake.” I pushed the door open.
“How old are you?” he called from the counter.
I looked over my shoulder at him from the doorway. “Seventeen.”
“How old are you?”
“Okay. Nice to meet you.” I left, letting the door fall closed behind me.
I felt strange during my bike ride home. I hunched over the paper bag in the basket and thought about Jake’s teeth as I sped through the empty streets. I swerved in zig-zags. One of the only non-magic things my mom taught me was that to get away from a crocodile, you should run in zig-zags. I checked behind me to see if there were any crocodiles snapping their jaws at my tires.
I liked Jake. The thought of him made something curl up tight in the pit of my stomach. I took my feet off the pedals and glided for a moment, trying to recall the ingredients of every love potion I had read about in my mom’s spellbook. I remembered one that required a lock of hair. I should have joked about that with Jake.
Over the next few weeks, I visited the liquor store as often as I could – sometimes to pick up bottles of wine for my mother, sometimes to linger until I could determine Jake wasn’t working. Before I biked to the store, I made offerings on the tiny altar in my room: the rune ring Jake asked about, a lock of hair, the twist-off caps from the malbec I bought from him. Nothing ever happened after I made my offerings. Maybe they were frivolous, maybe they didn’t work in the first place. I kept putting things on the altar anyway.
On another damp, misty night, my mom handed me her ID and a wad of cash and told me to go to the liquor store. I flattened my hair into a ponytail and biked over. This time, “Like A Virgin” by Madonna was playing over the loudspeakers. I huffed out a laugh.
“Can I help you?” A familiar voice floated through the store.
“Yeah, my mom called –”
“I was hoping you’d come in during my shift one of these days.” Jake stood up near the refrigerators, holding two bottles of vermouth. He put them on top of the nearest shelf and approached me. “I like your hair tied back.”
“You should cut it short like that.”
“Been thinking about it.” I hadn’t thought about it until then.
“It makes you look older.” Jake took his place behind the register. “More normal, too. Not as witchy.”
“I’ve had it long my whole life, practically.”
“I can cut it for you, if you want.” He produced a bottle of the same cheap malbec from underneath the counter. “I cut my own all the time.”
I handed him a twenty-dollar bill. “My mom might get mad about it.”
I thought about my mom, the explosion of bottles on the coffee table. “Good point.”
“Let me cut your hair for you,” Jake said, his fingertips brushing the palm of my hand as he took the money. “We could do it tonight, even.”
“So? Live right nearby, anyway.”
The same tightness nestled itself in my stomach. “Full moon tonight, too,” I said. “I could do a spell afterwards.”
He laughed. “There you go.” He cupped my hand and gave me a few cents of change. “Is this for the same alcoholic lady?”
“No, different alcoholic lady.”
“Hm.” Jake put the malbec in a paper bag and held it in the crook of his arm. “Let’s go cut your hair.”
I tightened my ponytail and followed Jake out of the store. Static-fuzz hummed in my body at the thought of taking Jake from his job, of letting him cut my hair. I shut the door securely behind me.
We walked in silence, the bottle of malbec rustling the paper bag and Jake’s shoes squeaking on the damp sidewalk. He reached his hand up and pulled gently on my ponytail, working through the tiny knots at the end. “Gonna be weird to have this gone, huh?”
My back tensed up, muscles jumping involuntarily as his fingers caught in the snarls. “Yeah.”
Jake lived on the top floor of a crumbling brick apartment building. We took the elevator up. “We should probably do this in the bathroom,” Jake said, unlocking his apartment door. “I don’t have a cape or whatever, so you might wanna take your shirt off.”
I followed him to his bathroom. The shower tiles were chipping at the corners. A pile of old green towels was shoved underneath the sink. I closed the toilet seat and sat down, watching him set up his clippers over the sink. He looked over at me and raised his eyebrows. “Shirt?”
“Right.” I pulled my shirt over my head and folded it in my lap.
Jake glanced at me and smiled, a private, sharp smile. Goosebumps pushed to the top of my skin, coating my arms and chest in sheets of raised pinpricks.
“Sit on the edge of the tub,” he instructed. “Back to the shower.”
I moved to the tub and wrapped my arms around myself. Jake loomed over me with the clippers. I felt skinny, caved-in. “Ready?” he asked.
“You’ll be all right.”
“I trust you.”
“To cut my hair, at least.”
“It’ll look great.” Jake straddled the edge of the tub and turned the clippers on.
He loosened my ponytail and fanned my hair over my shoulders. He lowered the clippers to the side of my head and slid it backwards, shearing off a long curl. I closed my eyes. I felt like crying, my throat constricting and my lower lip wobbling like I was six years old again.
I clutched my shirt to my chest and waited for Jake to finish. I felt soft tendrils of hair slide down the skin of my back, followed by his hand brushing them into the tub. I wished I had thought to ask for a Tupperware container.
“Done,” Jake said, wrapping the cord around the clippers. “What do you think? Did I do a good job?”
I put my shirt on and stood up to look at myself in the mirror.
I didn’t look older this way, my hair short and fuzzy and my neck exposed. The downy crop of hair and the cold redness of my neck reminded me of a baby bird. I looked younger, the baby fat on my cheeks more noticeable. I pulled at the skin of my face until it turned red.
“You look good, Grey,” Jake said. He rubbed a hand over my scalp. “Like…normal, too. Like a regular guy.”
“Thanks,” I said. My voice boomed in the tiny bathroom, pushing up through the tightness of my throat. “We should probably go back.”
Jake looked at me in the mirror. He hesitated. “Yeah,” he said. “Let’s go.”
On the walk back to the liquor store, Jake wrapped his arm around my waist. Even through the uneasiness spreading from the top of my head, I felt special. I convinced myself that my hair looked good like this.
The wet breeze bored through the new barrenness of my scalp. I itched at the small stray hairs stuck to the back of my neck. They glued themselves to my sweaty hands.
Jake noticed me moving restlessly. He took his hand from where it rested on my hip and wiped my neck clean.
Annalise Lamberty is a film student at Boston University. They are a Minnesota native, a water polo player, and a Barbra Streisand superfan. They are invested in writing strange stories and creating unique stories that every reader can find themselves in.