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Beast
Author:Brie Spangler

But in a weird way I love JP because he’s not afraid of me. Making friends was never easy. Mom was always like, “Talk to the other children. Show them your beautiful smile!” (Mom…) But when I tried, they ran the other way. Or even worse, pretended I wasn’t there. When I had thirty pounds on every other first grader in town, JP was the only kid who asked, “Wanna play?” Of course my answer was yes. And if he asked me to rough up the occasional somebody here and there, I did it because he wanted me to be his friend. It wasn’t too bad. Usually standing over the kid and staring down did the trick. Besides, hanging out with JP is a badge of honor at St. Lawrence. I’m not about to sacrifice my seat by his side at the lunch table.

He’s the best, except sometimes I hate him. Like right now. If it weren’t for JP, maybe I wouldn’t have gone onto the roof and maybe I’d still have hair. It was JP’s idea to go to the barbershop after school. He said he’d pay and I was like, awesome, because he’s stinking rich and I’m poor as hell. JP must know I’m really down, I thought as I sat in the chair. Nice thing for him to do. So I told the guy I wanted it cut like JP’s, just like JP’s. He tosses it to the side and it always looks perfect. Girls run their fingers through it whenever they get the chance. I want that. I’m telling the barber this and the dude goes and buzzes a strip right down the center of my head. What the hell? I jumped out of the chair, stupid plastic cape and all, and towered over the guy. He cowered, like they always do, and pointed at JP. Told me JP slipped him an extra twenty bucks to buzz it. And right on cue, JP starts laughing. I laughed too, but that’s different. I had to.

So now I have a buzzed skull. I don’t like it. Reminds me too much of chemo. I wonder what my dad thinks about my new haircut. He’d be the expert on this particular hairstyle. If he still does think, that is.

I tried to block out hating my new chemo head, but that only lasted until I got home, took my hat off, and saw my reflection in the hallway mirror. If anyone asks, yeah, the busted glass and dribbled bloody trail leading up to the roof was me. Big deal. I needed some fresh air. I picked up the long-lost football, took a deep breath, slipped, and we both came tumbling down. Perfect end to a perfect day.

And then it just got better! My neighbors the Swanpoles heard me dent the earth and my hollering that went with it and called an ambulance. Now I’m in the hospital, waking up from surgery with two spiral fractures in my right leg, and all the beeping from the monitors is driving me crazy. Does it have to do this with every heartbeat? I wish someone would turn it off. The beeping, I mean. Every time it repeats, I hear Madison’s voice on a loop. “Oh my god, now we’re going to have to see the Beast’s face every day. Oh my god, now we’re going to have to see the Beast’s face every day….”

My eyes close to block out all the white-white-white of my hospital room, and I’m feeling vaguely disappointed. Didn’t think I’d end up here. Not what I had in mind. My right leg is attached to the metal skeleton of the bed, with spikes and pins and wires all jutting out of it, and in my morphine-drip haze, it’s like my very own trippy puppet show. I settle into my hospital bed and inhale the room’s chemical sterility as though it’s Fern Chapman’s perfume. Or deodorant; whatever it is that always makes her smell unbelievable. I can’t lie: I’ve had dreams where I’m invisible and all I do is walk behind her and inhale.

I guess in my dreams I’ll have to hobble now. Crutches are perfect. Now I will be known as the Guy on Crutches. “Hey, look at that guy on crutches,” I’ll hear people say as I go by. I like the thought of that. It feels so amazingly ordinary.

The silence is short-lived.

Mom comes flying into the room. “Dylan!” There’s no chai-tea-for-the-ride-home in her hand. She must’ve raced all the way here from Beaverton, where she works long hours and gets us shoes at the employee store. A wave of guilt crashes over me. There’s not enough chai tea to wash away her kid being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance and having emergency surgery while she got the call at work. She might need to switch to kombucha.

“Sweetheart!” she cries out, and zooms across the room, smothering me in a massive hug. “I got here as soon as I could. Your doctor brought me up to speed while you were knocked out—he says you’ll be okay. Are you okay?”

I could use some more morphine. Not because I’m in pain but because it’s morphine. “Never been better.”

“Can I get you anything?”

A genetic do-over. “No.”

Mom pulls away and takes in the hospital tomb. I mean room. A shudder slips down her back. “You look so much like your father,” she murmurs. No doubt. Looking at me attached to tubes, bald, and more pasty than glue must be like being thrown back in time to when my enormous father sprawled across a hospital bed.

A fresh smile blooms on her cheeks, the one that crinkles up too high when she’s trying not to be too gushy. Mom lets go of the metal bar on the side of the bed. “But I like your new haircut—I get to see your face again. Looks so much better than hiding behind all that hanging scruff.” She lightly cups my cheek like she did when I was small. “You’re just like him in every way.”

I say nothing because okay, I’ve seen the pictures and it’s true. You can swap out a photo of my dad and think it’s me. Same massive picture-clogging bodies and camera-breaking faces. But lucky me, I’m the hairier one.

“Oh, Dylan.” My mother sighs as she fluffs my pillow. “The doctor told me you were trying to get a football? We could’ve found a better way to get it down, you know.”