When Sam started growing out his hair, it seemed like every inch changed the angles of his face, till by the end he didn’t look like who he had been at all.
We’d been studying together every Thursday after our last-period class, covering tables in the library with very old papers and even older books and sheaves of music I no longer knew how to read but that he said might be important. I wasn’t sure, but I liked the faraway look he got when he stared at them, like he was seeing something outside of time, something I would never understand.
I like to understand things, but I sort of liked the thought that I’d never be able to understand Sam fully, that he’d always be just a little bit beyond my reach. Because if I never got close enough to touch him, I’d never get close enough to hurt.
After two months, it was clear that his hair was growing much more quickly than could be natural. One night, when we’d been in the library for hours and the smell of the books had suffused our noses and maybe fused our brains together, or at least created a bridge between them, he told me about the dreams he had every night, of a little man who came and spun gold from his head.
I laughed and reached out and touched it, all my rules shattering in the dusty, salty air. I slid my finger under just one strand of his hair, and it did feel like gold, like the thinnest metal wire spooling in my palm.
That was when he looked into my eyes, and the book-smell fuse between us snapped and a bright light went up between us like a spark, and I knew that I’d crossed the bridge, that when I’d touched him I’d reached him after all, and now anything could happen.
Nothing happened that night, but the next weekend he came over to my apartment and I asked him if he wanted me to French braid his hair, because it kept spilling over his shoulders and across the board game we were playing, building castles and empires in an imaginary land until his hair covered them and put the whole kingdom to sleep.
He said yes and knelt in front of me where I sat on the couch, plastic game pieces pressing into his knees like penance, and my calves brushed his shoulders and my fingers brushed his temples and even though it wasn’t actually that heavy, I felt unable to move under the weight of his hair waterfalling into my lap. I’d be stuck on this couch until I became part of the room, sunk back into the walls till I was nothing more than an outline in the wallpaper to haunt future occupants. And where would Sam be then?
I braided one long braid down his back, and when I was done and reached out for the hairband I’d given him for safekeeping, he took my hand in his instead. He brought it to his mouth and put his lips against the pad of my thumb, and his breath was warm and his mouth was soft and there was a smell like wildflowers in the room. Then I forgot about the hairband, and used my other hand to tilt his chin up to me, up and up to meet my mouth, and his hair spilled back into my lap. But by that point, I couldn’t imagine moving anyway.
Kissing Sam was like a dream, like deciding to fly and finding yourself in the air, then not quite knowing what to do next. Like the slow-moving parts of drunkenness where everything seems certain and the whole world is warm, and you know exactly where you’re going and you step with such purpose, and then you discover that you’ve missed the curb and spilled yourself all over the cold, wet grass, and you’re not where you meant to be at all.
We still met on Thursday nights, and other times he would call in the middle of the afternoon or at three a.m. and ask me what I was doing, and I always seemed to wake up at the sound of his voice if I had been asleep, and I always wanted to be wherever he was.
He pressed me up against walls and led me into shadows that I wasn’t afraid of, moved his lips against mine and then held still till I could feel the vibrations at every point where our bodies connected. My hands strayed over his hips and back but always made their way to his hair, to stroke down its length and feel the reassurance of its cold smoothness, the way it had pulled me across the bridge between us again and again. He tucked my hair behind my ears with gentle fingers, or sometimes wrapped my ponytail around his fist and held tight. But it felt lank and thin in his hands, as though his touch might burn it away.
Once, at a party, he told me that we would have to leave separately and meet up on the street outside the bar, that he didn’t want anyone to see that we were together. I didn’t like that but I did it, and once we were out there together, walking down the sidewalk past the bike racks near the union, he kept jerking his head around to look behind us, as if sure someone was following. And I forgave him immediately out of worry that something had gone terribly wrong, that he was in some kind of danger.
Or, more terrible still, worry that the fuse between us had snapped again but now there would be no spark, only darkness. That he was slipping back out of reach and this time I couldn’t use the shine of his hair in the shadows to coil him back to me. I felt like Ariadne throwing her ball of yarn into the labyrinth as hard as she could but finding nothing at the end of it.
As his hair got longer and longer, his face got thinner and thinner, like the hair was sucking nutrients from his body. Each strand glistened. His fingers grew ashy when I held them in mine. Soon I could barely touch him before he’d pull away, twisting his hands into his hair but never pulling it from his scalp. Once I thought he had pulled a single strand free, saw it spiderwebbing between his fingers. But when I looked closer I saw that it was one of my own hairs, and something about that made me angry. I wanted to untangle it from his fingers and take it back from him, keep it safe, make it mine again.
When he came over, he always left before midnight, and when I went to his place, he didn’t want me to spend the night. He would kiss my forehead in the stairwell, and after a while, it started to feel as though his lips were passing right through my head. I could feel them kissing every strand of my hair all the way down.
The last time I saw Sam, he was dissolving. He stood in his living room in a pool of his own hair, naked like Lady Godiva, and the hollows beneath his eyes gleamed dully and the overhead lamp shone through him like tracing paper, waxy and golden and melting all over the floor.
I stepped forward and he stepped back. I stopped. I knew there wasn’t anything more I could do. If I touched him now, he would twist away like a snake. If I held on, he might burn like a brand in my hands, but he wouldn’t turn back into the Sam he’d been before.
He tilted his head and looked at me, and it felt like the first time he’d looked at me in ages. Maybe since that night in my apartment, when I thought I could lift the weight of his hair for him, bind it up in braids and hold it in my hands. I realized that I had forgotten what he looked like, that until he looked at me, I hadn’t been able to picture his face, only his hands, his hair.
“It’s gone,” he said.
I reached my hands up to my head, felt the clotted smoothness of my skin. Curdled milk. Tetherballs on the playground. So light and so cold all at once.
“Yes,” I said. “I wanted to start fresh, you know?” I wanted to stop feeling his touch on my hair every time I put it up or swung my head, the way his lips scorched it ragged and his hands tugged it down. But I didn’t tell him that. “It felt like something I should do,” I said. He just kept tilting his head at me, so I said, “I’m sorry,” even though I’m not sure I really was.
“Don’t be,” he said. “You have to do what you think is right.”
I nodded at him and he nodded back, as if something had been decided. As though we’d sealed a contract, signed in blood and gold.
And then he stamped his foot hard on the floor, making the cascade of hair ripple and quake. I turned around before I could watch him disappear.
Krista Ahlberg grew up in Colorado, spent a few years in the Midwest, and now lives in New York City. She enjoys fairy tales, peppermint tea, and falling in love with (fictional) monsters.