Below is a short-story written for the NYC at Midnight competition. My assigned tags were Historical Fiction/Barber/Syndrome, and I was given one week to write it. Although I unfortunately came down with the flu at the beginning, I managed to complete it with only an hour to spare.
Dietrich had been staring out of the window from the back room when the two men came in. He watched the now empty streets of Warsaw shine with midday light, but still the streets looked empty, like the skeleton of a carcass that had its flesh plucked clean. Here and there were flashes of scarlet, dancing red flags that fell from certain windows. The bell on the door rang cheerily, and he limped to the front of the shop, his old wound stiffening from the cold. His barbershop was shabby, but clean. Sunlight poured through, painting the old brown chairs in a golden hue, reflecting brightly off of the scissors and mirrors. All in all, he couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day. Then he saw who walked into his shop.
The two imposing figures were already talking to his assistant, Ivo. They were dressed all in black, with long coats, distinguished hats and leather boots. They passed their coats to Ivo, and removed their caps, and Dietrich noticed that at each of their collars, were two bolts of lightning, and adorned on their fine black caps was a brazen skull and crossbones. He swallowed deeply. He did not recognise their uniforms, but he recognised the insignia they had pinned to their jackets. The man at the front noticed Dietrich standing there, and smiled warmly. His hair was light, and his eyes were cold, almost sinking into his lean face, which began to show signs of stubble and unkempt growth. He was a Sturmbannführer, a Major, and he carried himself with grace and defined poise. He seemed to move as if the very earth beneath him had been created for only himself to walk upon. The man in the back was his Lieutenant, an Obersturmführer. He bore deeply distrustful, dark eyes, suspicious and searching, and his hair was the shade of mahogany. Although young, Dietrich found his face unpleasant, as if he was constantly clenching his teeth behind his lips. The Major moved forward.
“Good afternoon, Herr Dietrich. Lovely day, no?” He spoke in a cheerful manner, but it was a curtain hiding a dagger in the dark. Dietrich nodded, his heart racing. Before he could answer, the Major spoke again. “I didn’t think we would find a German barber here in this pig-sty, but just in time, eh?” He said with a chuckle, stroking his unkempt chin suggestively. He strode to the chair without waiting for an invitation and sat down with a comfortable sigh. His Lieutenant sat on the arm chair by the window and lit a cigarette. Dietrich nodded, and moved quickly, he draped a towel around the Major’s chin. He turned to Ivo, not wanting to keep the boy in the company of these men any longer than needed.
“Ivo, will you fetch these officers some coffee?” The boy nodded, and darted off into the kitchen. The Major smiled.
“Is that your son, Herr Dietrich?” He asked cheerfully. Dietrich began mixing the soap and carefully began to smother it upon the man’s face.
“No..he is just my apprentice. His father helped me find this shop when I first arrived here.” He said, focused on the task. Quickly, the Lieutenant piped up;
“So he’s a Pole?” Dietrich quickly looked up, and found his dark predatory eyes focused on him, like an owl watching a field mouse.
“Yes.” Dietrich nodded, returning to his task. The Lieutenant grimaced as if tasting something terrible. The Major simply chuckled. By the time the boy returned with a platter of coffee and cream, the Major’s face was covered in soap and ready to be sheared. Dietrich took the boy aside and took out a handful of money from his pocket, he had no idea how much was in there. He told him that was it for today, head straight home and talk to no-one. He clumsily pawed over the money, and the boy took off, not needing to be asked twice. The Lieutenant watched him leave, and looked at the coffee like it was poison.
Dietrich carefully took out his straight razor, giving a rap on his sharpening belt, once, twice, to be sure. It would not do to cut the throat of an officer, accidental or not. He turned back to the Major, razor shining in the light. He held it above his soft, delicate throat, watched his Adam’s apple bounce when he swallowed. He moved the blade closer.
“Tell me Herr Dietrich, did you serve?” The Major said, startling him suddenly. Dietrich had to blink, once, twice, to focus.
“I’m sorry?” He asked.
“I noticed your limp when you came in, and you are obviously of a certain age, did you fight for our country in the Great War?”
Dietrich took a moment. Then he scraped the cold metal against the Major’s throat.
“Yes. I did” He shook the razor in the water, and scraped again. The Major chuckled in a satisfied way. Dietrich continued to shave the man’s face, assured that no-one who fought the same war as he would ever refer to it as a great one. The only good thing to come from that war was Eleana, how she tended to his leg in the infirmary, and how they fell in love shortly thereafter.
He fell into a rhythm, scraping and rinsing, trying to drown out the world around him, but the officers began to chat.
“How are the boys set for tonight?” The Major asked pleasantly, apparently eager to break any awkward silence. The Lieutenant sighed, stubbing out his cigarette, breathing out the fumes heavily.
“As well as can be expected, sir.” He sat back into his chair. “Some of them seem to even enjoy it here.” He added, clearly full of distaste. The Major chuckled.
“I’m sure you will too, in time.” He spoke like a father giving out advice to a rash teenager. The Lieutenant merely grunted, and reached for another cigarette, lighting it instantly. He turned his head to look out back at the streets beyond. The skies began to grow cloudy, and the light diminished within the shop. Slowly, he began to nod.
“Mmm. We have a lot of cleaning up ahead of us sir..but once we are one step closer to the Führer’s dream, this place will certainly be a lot nicer, yes.” He turned his gaze back to Dietrich, who pretended not to notice. He began to feel beads of cool sweat appear on his forehead. He had heard rumours about what ‘cleaning up’ might mean. People, certain people, had been forced out of their homes and rounded up, forced to live in slums, or taken god-only-knew-where. His hand began to shake slightly, but his task was almost done. He rinsed the blade one last time, and wiped the Major’s face down with a towel. He smiled happily at his clean-shaven reflection, admiring his visage.
He paid Dietrich handsomely, and the two collected their coats and thanked him, promising to recommend him to other officers for business, and they strode away. Dietrich sighed heavily, feeling a great weight releasing him from his suffering. He needed a drink. He always had a bottle of whiskey stored away in the back room, and poured himself a hearty glass, and then another, feeling the shaking beginning to subside. Sighing heavily, he took the bottle and the glass back into the front room, intending to close shop. Soon, he wouldn’t have any customers except men like those. Would it even be worth opening tomorrow? He stepped forward into the room, that now grew dark, and stopped, his heart skipping a beat. A man in a long black coat with two lightning bolts on his collar stood in the doorway, alone, holding up a framed picture Dietrich had placed on his table.
He hadn’t heard the bell, but there stood the Major, come to retrieve the hat he carelessly left on the rack. He stared at the barber, all of the warmth drained from his snake-like eyes. He turned back to the picture. A framed photograph of Dietrich, Eleana, and their precious son. Karl, taken only a few years ago. The two men stood in silence. Finally, the Major placed the photograph back onto the table where it belonged, and turned and left through the door, without saying a word. Dietrich watched him pace back up the street, but did not feel relief, instead, he felt very frightened.
He returned home, exhausted. He felt starved but he had no appetite. The apartment was quiet, except for the sounds of Eleana in the kitchen, and he could hear Karl making some sort of racket in his room. Eleana used to have the radio on every day, but not since the tanks rolled into Warsaw. He found the quiet sickening. He followed the aromas to the kitchen, his stomach leading the way. He saw her there, tending to her pots and pans, humming a tune to herself. Dietrich rested on the door frame, listening to the sweet music. He admired her figure, still amazed by her beauty after all these years. She had a strong posture, always commanding respect, but it mixed well with her selfless nature and warming smile. Her hands were that of a nurse, weathered and hard, warm and comforting. He noticed she had new bruises on her forearm, and sighed with great sadness. She turned her head and saw him standing there.
“Oh! I didn’t see you there love, are yo-?” She began in her sweet voice, but he strode towards her and took her in his arms, hugging her tightly, while she still held the wooden spoon in the air. He didn’t say a word, he just breathed her in, felt her warmly caress his back. Suddenly he wasn’t in a tiny, dilapidated flat in the middle of an occupied city, he was something devoid of space and time, were only he and her existed, drowning in a beautiful lie. Then one of the pots to boil over.
“Oh, honey? The soup..” She said softly. He withdrew his arms, and chuckled. He held her back for half a moment, taking one last second to stare into her deep brown eyes. “Dietrich? Are you okay?” She asked, worry now staining her face. He smiled warmly.
“Yes, my love.” His voice was heavy, almost choking with emotion. He kissed her softly on the cheek. She smiled.
“Dinner will be ready in 20 minutes. Will you go see Karl?” She asked turning back to her soup.
“Okay.” He said through a pained smile, slowly turning back
He walked down the corridor, now very dark. A slither of light shone through from his sons room. He followed it, like an insect drawn to a flame. He could hear the noises growing, animalistic grunting and the clashing of wood and metal. He slowly pushed the door open.
“Karl? Are you okay?” He entered the room to find his son sitting on the floor, with several toy soldiers on the floor. As he stepped in, Karl looked up, his eyes looked almost blank, his mouth was agape. He held the toys still, staring at Dietrich in almost fascination.
“Karl? It’s Papa.” He smiled at the boy, and saw the ghost of a smile appear on his face. He slowly lowered himself and sat on the floor next to him, the pain in his leg flaring up wildly. He picked up on of the toys and fiddled with it idly. Karl watched him, then resumed clashing the toys together, making noises and sound effects, lost in his own world. Dietrich watched him, and felt his smile slowly fade. For twelve years, everyone in their life had told them Karl was a monster, that he should be sent off to one of those institutes that deal with people like him, but they never could. There were days when they regretted not doing it, often they seemed to outnumber the days when it felt worthy to keep him, but they just couldn’t. He was their son, and he deserved their love as much as anyone else in this world. Dietrich felt the heat in his cheeks, and the back of his eyes began to ache. He would be ostracised from everyone in this world for what he was, he knew that, but not by them. Not his parents.
He reached forward and grabbed him.
“Come here, son” He said tears streaming down his face. Karl did not resist of right back, but did not embrace him. He began to sob, but held his son tighter. He smelled him, heard his breathing, and tried to hide the hurricane in his head. From back in the hall, he heard a knock at the door. He held Karl tighter as he wiggled. They stayed motionless, Dietrich sobbing. The knocking came again. Eleana called for him to get the door, but he did not move. He held his son tighter, Karl began trying to escape, but Dietrich was lost to the world, crying and embracing. The knocking became a frantic hammering, and an authoritarian voice called out from beyond it. Eleana called again, worried now. Dietrich held tighter. Karl was trying desperately to escape now, but he would not release him. He couldn’t let go of his son.