Tom kissed his fiancée goodbye and closed the front door. She was heading off to be magically retouched at the best salon in town, ready for their wedding the next day. “Don’t spend too much …”
“Hey. I want to look perfect. It’s all right for you. I need the help.” Tom protested dutifully about her beauty and her personality. “Same for you, it’s not your looks I love,” she said. “Though I’ll admit they are a big bonus …” She pinched him cheekily on the bum and left.
Tom groaned. He leaned back against the front door and pulled out his phone. He read the text for the umpteenth time, but its message was unequivocal. Pay up, or I tell Laura everything.
The brusque words came from Big Don, who ran the barber shop at the nearby long-distance truckers’ place. The barber shop was for the men to get a quick shave and trim before heading home to their spouses. Except that Big Don offered more than a razor and foam. He offered a full salon service.
“Why limit yourself to the ladies?” he’d said the first time Tom lumbered in. Big Don was American, from New York or New Jersey or somewhere the people spoke with a forceful twang. Having a conversation with him was like being verbally poked in the chest. “I thought, why not do the retouch thing for the guys? —The first one’s free,” he added.
Big Don made a few improvements, nothing too ostentatious, but set with a powerful magic that the regular salons didn’t use. More firmness around the chin. Belly shrinkage. Bald spot reduction. “Little touches,” he’d said, flicking away the towel to reveal his handiwork, “little touches that women love. And the best part is, you don’t got to keep coming back. It lasts a month, this stuff I use.”
He charged for it, though. “Sure, you can go to a regular place. Those salons on Main Street. But the look fades off after two, three days. Not my stuff. My stuff, it’s so strong, you got to take it off with a reveal.” He passed a large jar of this ointment over the counter. Tom, admiring his thick hair and flat stomach in the mirror, thought he would not be using the reveal, but paid for it, and the glamour, anyway.
Tom felt the effects of magical adjustment straight away. He’d gone to his local pub that first night, and a plain but lovely girl called Laura asked him out.
“Hit me again,” he’d said to Big Don at the end of the month, when the buttons on his new shirt had begun to strain. “It doesn’t have to be subtle.”
A gleam flickered in Big Don’s eyes.
And so it began. Bolder changes, tightening and tucking and straightening and smoothing. Tom felt fabulous. People at work started paying him attention. His parents treated him with a wary respect. And Laura, Laura could not believe her luck.
He quickly moved away from his old mates and went to a new town, closer to Big Don’s. He saw his family less often, and only at the end of the month, when the glamour was wearing off.
Laura said she loved him for his straightforward personality. She freely admitted to her own lash extensions, the thigh shrinkage — all girls had that. She was a sweet person too. Tom couldn’t admit that he was retouched. She went on so much about his honesty — he just couldn’t do it. And so he kept quiet. The jars of reveal sat in the garage, under a sheet, waiting to be tipped down the drain.
He got engaged to Laura, but Tom planned a small wedding, just a few friends, no family. He had a tab going at Big Don’s, and had promised to pay it once the wedding was paid for. But the wedding costs kept expanding like a flabby belly. The bridal items, the suit and flowers. Did you really need special socks? The wedding spending seemed unstoppable. And Tom’s money had run out.
Tom peeled himself off the front door and went to the kitchen. He stared at his reflection in the glass back door. His jaw looked a little lumpier than usual. He rubbed his belly. Definitely thickening.
Why had he not taken up running when he still had the figure for it?
A sudden fear gripped him. He touched the top of his head. Skin, bare skin between the hairs. His bald spot was back.
He sank to the linoleum. He couldn’t call off the wedding. It was tomorrow. And unlike Laura, he couldn’t wear a veil.
He’d lied to her. Two years! He wasn’t the man she thought he was. It wasn’t even the looks. She thought he was an honest person and clearly that wasn’t true. He winced.
He ought to tell her. Ring her right now and confess, beg her to forgive him, not to leave him.
Yes. There was a chance that she meant it when she said she loved him for himself. Plus, plenty of people let themselves go after they got married. Tom was no different. His deterioration might simply be be a little … faster. And Laura was no oil painting. Really, she was lucky to have him. Whatever he looked like.
It was mostly her fault anyway — she’d spent a fortune on the wedding. On the table was a heap of tiaras and fascinators for Laura and the bridesmaids. Ridiculous.
His finger hovered over the Call button. Maybe he could sell some of that junk … pay Big Don … Or should he come clean with Laura — lay it on the line that she could have the big wedding or the good looking husband, but not both—?
The dread in his gut told him that it was far more likely she’d end up with neither.
A knock at the front door stopped his hand on the phone.
“We’ve come to collect,” came a voice Tom recognised as Big Don’s. “Pay up now, everything’s good, we’ll see you again on Saturday.”
Tom cringed. He couldn’t pay. And realistically he couldn’t hand Big Don a tiara in lieu of cash. In the back door, Tom’s reflection wobbled, and bulged.
Then it got worse. “Oh, yes, he should be in. Come in, I’ll make you a cuppa.”
Laura’s voice sweetly welcomed the visitors, and her key turned in the door.
Tom scrambled to his feet. He lumbered to the garage. Puffing, he ripped the sheet off the stack of bottles. There. Enough reveal to make a supermodel tremble.
Laura was coming, and Big Don would be with her. All elegant ways out, all smarmy and deceitful solutions were closed to him now. He had always been a coward.
Tom unscrewed the lid of the first jar. Its contents sloshed, grey like cold porridge.
“There you are!” Laura stopped as Tom raised the jar above his head.
Behind her, Big Don raised a long chunk of wood like a truncheon. Not a baseball bat — this was England. The weapon being hefted from hand to hand was a cricket bat.
“I can’t pay,” said Tom, “for the wedding or the treatments.” In Laura’s shocked face he saw a chance to redeem himself, and added, “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry doesn’t work,” said Big Don, stepping forward, but he was too late. Tom tipped the jar over his head, the whole lot, and grabbed the next jar, and the next, until grey slime poured down his body.
Big Don stopped, the bat drooping.
Tom dropped the final jar. It rolled away across the concrete garage floor, its hollow noise the only sound except for the dripping of Tom’s clothes. Drip, drip … Tom looked down and saw magic flooding away from him, an oily slick of nice hair, good teeth, flat stomach … The reveal was stripping away all deceptive parts of Tom, layer by layer.
“Tom,” said Laura, and her voice cracked.
“Stay back, sweetheart,” said Big Don.
Tom was mesmerised by the flow of reveal, its swirls and colours on the concrete. They seemed so near, as if he was looking at them from an inch or two away. When he looked up at Laura, she was a towering giant … and so beautiful …
He was spread thin on the floor, he was flat, he was melting away. He tried to call out, but there was not enough left of him to form speech.
The last thing he heard was Big Don, speaking over Laura’s soft sobs. “I’ll fetch a mop. And you, sweetheart, you look like you could use a pick-me-up. You want to come to my salon, any time, you’ll get a first rate retouch. We’ll make you a knockout with our treatments. The first one’s free.”