It was a fine beard. Full and wooly and warm on cold days with high winds, and filled with food bits just all the time. He'd spent a long life growing it. He'd lived under it for so long, he thought of it more as a house than a facial feature. It was his beard. The beard.
But it had never made a sound before.
It started first as a low hum, a sort of vibration that he could feel more than hear. Like when he was leaning against the metal walls of a Metro stop, as one of the trains came in, as people ignored him and walked past his little sign and his cup and his plea. It felt like all of that, actually. A low hum, a vibration, something to be ignored.
But it kept insisting. Even as he walked to the warm place, the spot he'd made among boxes and bushes, where he slept even on the really cold nights, because he was the only one who knew it was there. It kept insisting even as he woke the next morning, and snuck out of the warm place and onto the streets.
He could feel his beard, insisting and humming. It was talking to him.
"What is it?" he asked. "What do you want? Huh? What is it!"
He'd said this while standing near some people at a restaurant, all dressed warmly and nicely, sipping coffee among a series of tables that dotted the sidewalk outside. He'd gotten looks. The usual looks. He wasn't crazy, he insisted on that. He didn't say it outloud, because it wouldn't matter. But he wasn't crazy, and he wasn't a drunk. He hadn't touched a drop, not a single drop, not one, all morning.
The beard didn't answer. Not at first. It just hummed and vibrated and insisted. But then, as he ate a sandwich someone had handed him through their car window, a nice hoagie with at least three kinds of meat he could count and some vegetables that gave it a nice bit of roughage, he heard it. It was quiet. It was unclear. But there it was.
"Two blocks east."
"Wha—? Wazzat? What'd you say?"
"Two blocks east," the beard repeated, in a humming, buzzing whisper, like something from the back of the throat. It moved when it spoke, just a tiny jiggle, but he could feel it.
"You want me to go?" he asked, before taking another bite of the sandwich.
"Two blocks east," his beard said.
He finished the sandwich first. That wasn't even a question. Never knew when you'd get another, so you couldn't waste it. And you couldn't eat and walk, that was just wrong. No, you had to eat in place, to finish it, to get every crumb. And then you had to wait a bit, to let it digest. That was more of a guideline, though, and not a hard and fast rule, and so he didn't wait after all, and instead started walking east.
Two blocks, that's what his beard had said. And in two blocks he stopped on the corner. A bus roared by, its engines revving up as it picked up speed after leaving a stop. The stop was right there, right in sight, and it had a bench, which was kind of rare around here. People didn't like seeing people like him sitting down on benches.
"Sit on the bench," his beard said.
"But people don't like it," he told his beard, and a lady walking by looked his way before speeding up a bit. "People call the police."
"Sit on the bench," his beard insisted.
And he sat on the bench, wishing he had another sandwich.
Several minutes went by, and nothing happened. Oh the usual stuff, of course, kept happening all around. Cars crept by, horns honked, people went in and out of buildings, lights changed colors at each intersection, over and over. He sat and watched all of it. He could use a drink.
"Stand up," his beard said.
He did. No sense arguing with it, after all. It was right there on his face, and he couldn't walk away or anything. Besides, it was his beard. It was all he really had, come to think of it. His very own, not picked over from somewhere else, salvaged from the trash or given to him by a stranger. It was his, sure enough. It had been for a long, long time.
"Lift your shoe," the beard said.
He lifted his shoe, looking at the ground. Nothing to see there. He leaned against the bus stop and tilted his foot so he could see the bottom. And there it was. A plastic rectangle. Some kind of card, stuck there by a bit of chewing gum. He pried it loose and looked at it a bit closer. It was a Metro pass — the kind that people used to ride the busses and trains.
Just then he heard the roar, the familiar sound of a bus slowing just before the loud and piercing sound of hydraulics and brakes. The bus stopped, the door opened, and the driver glanced his way before rolling his eyes and looking down at a clipboard attached to the steering wheel.
"Get on the bus," his beard said.
He got on the bus, and when the driver looked like he might protest, he held up the metro card. The driver nodded to a box, a little scanner mounted to the dividing wall behind the driver's seat. He held the card up to it, and there was a beep and a green light.
"Take your seat," the driver said, sounding a little disgusted.
He took his seat.
The bus roared again and rolled away from the stop, and he sat looking out of the window as the city passed by. He hadn't moved at this speed in quite some time. Not since he was a young. Not since he'd started his beard. He hadn't moved at any particular speed for several years now. He wished he had a drink.
After a long time — he had no way of knowing how long, really, but after several people got on the bus and sat as far away from him as possible, and then got off the bus again — his beard finally spoke.
"Get off of the bus," it said.
He stood and walked to the front of the bus, just as it was slowing to a stop. The doors opened, and he walked down the small set of steps, out into the world. He stood by a bus stop as the bus picked up speed again, roaring away.
This was a different place. It wasn't what he was used to. The buildings weren't as tall here. The cars moved faster. The people still looked at him, but some of them smiled.
"Two blocks east," his beard said to him.
"Again? Oh, please, I've been following you all day, and I'm hungry now, and my warm spot is pretty far from here. I don't even know if I could find it again. Whatever you want me to do, can you just tell me plain? Can you just let me know where I'm going?"
"Two blocks east," it said.
And he started walking east.
At two blocks, the world changed altogether. The buildings were there, but they were background now. His view was now blocked more by trees than anything. There were fields, large open plots of land, that had flowers and gardens and playground equipment in them. People were there. Children were laughing and screaming in the good way, the fun way.
"Sit on the bench," his beard said.
He saw it then, that bench. The first time he'd noticed it, really. He sat down, and discovered that there was a bit of shade. The day had started a little chilly, but it had warmed up. The sun could have made him uncomfortable, in all his borrowed and donated clothes. But in the shade he felt cool and he could rest.
He sat, and he watched, and he waited for his beard to tell him what else he needed to do.
"Aaron?" he heard a voice say.
And that was interesting, because Aaron was his own name. He hadn't heard it in a long time. He hadn't heard it since he'd started growing the beard. That was the last name he'd been called before he'd given up names for good.
"Aaron Bloom?" he heard the voice say. And that was even stranger, because that was his other name, way back before the beard. What a nice thing to hear.
Someone sat down on the bench beside him. A man. He was old. Well, he was older than most of the people in the park. He wore a suit, one of the nice ones, and he looked familiar. He looked very familiar.
"Aaron, it really is you," the man said, sort of whispering, like he couldn't believe it.
Hearing the name, seeing the face, he knew he was the one. He was guy. He was Aaron. "That's me, yes," he said. "That's me. I'm Aaron. Still me."
"Aaron!" the man said, putting a hand on his shoulder and gripping him tight, friendly. "It's you! My God! I can't believe it's you! I ...we looked for you. For years we looked! To find you here, of all places!"
Aaron smiled. "My beard led me here," he said.
The man ... Eddie? Eddie looked at him, thinking. "Aaron," he said, "would you come with me? Would you come home with me? I ... I think you need it, don't you? Some place warm to sleep? Some place where you can get a hot meal?"
"Oh!" Aaron said. "Oh yes, that would be nice. I'd like that," he said.
Eddie smiled. "You come with me. My daughter is right over there. You remember Olivia? Little Liv? She's a mother now. It's been a long time. She loved you. Her favorite uncle."
"Liv," Aaron said, thinking. "Oh, sweet little girl, yes I remember her. Oh, I've missed her. I've missed all of it. I can't remember why I left."
Eddie gripped his arm, and looked sad. "I remember, Aaron. A lot of us do. It was rough, when you lost them. It was so hard. We knew, when we saw you last, that you were in bad shape. We should have done something. We just ... I thought you'd get better, if we left you alone. We all did, but I should have known better. And when you left ..."
Aaron smiled. "It was a long time ago," he said. "But it's over now, I think."
They left the park. They went to Eddie's home, which was large and nice and warm. There was food, so much that Aaron thought he might pop if he ate another bite, but kept eating anyway. He wanted a drink, from time to time, but thought better of it. Actually, the beard thought better of it.
"No more drinking," it said.
"Welcome home," it told him.
And Aaron smiled, and laughed, and started again.