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Beast
Author:Brie Spangler

“Mmmm…”

“I thought you hated football.”

Ignoring that, I reach for the pain pump instead. Pump-pump-pump.

“Stop,” she says, taking it out of my hand. “The last thing I need is to drop you off at the methadone clinic before school every morning. We are not getting addicted to morphine today, thank you very much.”

“S’good schtuff.”

“I bet,” she says. “Well, while we were waiting for you to wake up, I called the school and let them know you’re going to kick off the school year with only one leg.”

I roll my eyes underneath my lids, getting a rush from the painkillers as I do. “Whatever. Who else did you tell?” Fern Chapman?

I swear if Fern comes gliding in through that door, I will die.

“The school, the family,” she says.

“My friends?” I’m afraid to ask. “Please tell me I’ll be the first to tell JP.”

“Don’t be mad, honey….” She bites her lip.

“But you already texted him,” I finish for her.

“No, no—he texted me! He heard something happened and wanted to make sure you were okay. Isn’t that what friends do?”

“I guess so.”

“Don’t shoot the messenger. You two were the ones who decided you were brothers when you were little kids, not me. He was watching out for you.” Mom tries to chuckle. “Well, JP might not have seen you in full flight, but I bet Dad enjoyed his front-row seat.”

We laugh together but it feels rehearsed. I mean, what can we do? Nothing. The man I look more and more like every day, from the height to the fur to the never-ending bodily expansion, has been gone for twelve years. He died a long, hard death from cancer, so I hope if anything, he’s up there laughing his ass off.

My head feels cold. I touch it slowly and feel all stubble, no weathered cotton and a stiff, frayed bill. It’s gone. “Where’s my baseball hat?” I immediately say.

Mom glances about. “Not sure.”

I sit up and jerk left and right, looking for it. “No really, my hat—where is it?”

“Lie down,” she stresses. “Dylan, your leg, the traction.”

“I’m fine.” Things begin beeping and nurses run in, yelping for me to quit moving. “All I want is my hat,” I try to say as slowly and calmly as I can. Doesn’t work. A billion panicked hands and arms press my body down. Guess I am as big as they say. “It’s not my leg,” I try to assure them. You’d think they were holding down a thrashing water buffalo. It’s just me, people! “I just like my hat, that’s all.”

“A hat?” one of the nurses says.

“I can get you a hat,” the first nurse volunteers. “Be right back.”

Mom comes over and rubs my shoulder. “It’s okay, sweetie,” she says. “You’re a handsome guy, you know. You don’t need to hide behind a hat. You are a beautiful person, inside and out, and someday—”

“Mom, don’t.”

Mom. Jeezus, where do I begin? The bleeding sincerity? If a total and complete stranger stubs their toe next to her, she will be the first one offering a ride home and half her life’s savings just to make sure they’re okay. In my case, it means a constant maternal bludgeoning so I am painfully aware of my epic wonderfulness.

The fact that she has to try so hard annoys me more than any of the words.

“Here we go.” The first nurse returns, holding up a white cotton skullcap.

I take one look at it and drop it on the side of the bed. “Thanks,” I tell him all the same. Don’t feel like wearing any hat that’s not my baseball hat. My hat’s been through a ton of crap with me; it’s my helmet for battle. This hospital hat couldn’t protect me from shit. I look at the metal frame. The system of pulleys and wires keeps my leg still and high. My leg. Emptiness vibrates through me as I stare at it. Like it’s lifeless. A marlin that fought the good fight, only to be strung up and measured at the dock.

“Dylan, honey, are you okay?” Mom asks.

“Hurts.” I fake some physical agony. She doesn’t budge, so I squirm some more. She was so excited to see my face again, I crush it up into little pieces with sheer anguish, just for her, and she lets me push the pump. (Yay.) “I need to talk to the doctor.”

The first nurse tests the nerve response from my toes as the second nurse leaves the room. “I’ll find him,” she tells me.

I chew my upper lip. Should I really do it? Ask him a question I’ve only asked Google? I’m kind of thinking yes. Some twenty minutes later, my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Jensen, enters and surveys the scene. “What’s the problem, Mr. Ingvarsson?”

His bedside manner is nothing if not direct. “Never mind,” I mutter, embarrassment circling back in full force. “I’m fine now.”

Everyone stares at me. The doctor looks to my mother. “Might I have some time with my patient?”

“Sure thing,” she says. Mom stands firm, blinking innocently.

The doctor raises his eyebrows at her until she can no longer ignore the hint.

“I will, uh…go get a snack. I’ll be back in a bit.” Mom pauses. The nurses stop mid-step, just as they’re about to leave with her. “Can I get you anything?”