Ugh. He turned and slumped toward the den, now Mom’s “bedroom.” Parting the curtains that separated it from the living room, he looked inside. To his left squatted a potty chair. Directly ahead was a medical bed, on which his mother lay covered by thin white sheets. To her right lurked an IV stand, from which hung several suspicious looking bags of fluids. Bundles of plastic tubes snaked from them under the covers. The astringent smell of disinfectant hung in the air.
Anna Stevens turned her head as he stepped further into the room. “Let’s have a look at you.”
Matt lumbered forward. Picture day inspection has begun. “I’m late for the bus, Mom.”
“You heard me,” she muttered wearily. He stepped into her line of sight. “Oh no, that hair will never do.” She tried to reach for his head, but her swollen left arm refused to cooperate. With a grunt, she rolled on her left side and groped his cowlick with her right hand.
But she had no more success with the mange than he. With an exasperated sigh, she said, “You just need to comb that out.”
“I can’t find my comb. Besides, I need to go, or I’ll miss my bus.”
“Nonsense,” she muttered, then clawed at the nightstand next to her, yanking open the drawer. Her hand shuffled about before quickly retrieving a large toothed plastic brush. “Here, take this, and fix your hair before you get your picture taken.”
A quick glance at the brush sent a chill down his spine. Crap. There’s no way he was going to be seen with a woman’s hairbrush. He opened his mouth to protest, but then his gaze drifted to Mom’s scalp and the few patches of reddish-brown hair her chemo treatments hadn’t taken. Forget it. “Thanks, Mom,” he whispered to the walls.
“Hurry, before you miss your bus.”
“Bye,” he said darting for the front door.
With narrowed eyes barely concealing her cold, contained fury, “The Beast” watched him pass by.
He suppressed a grin–Mom obviously forgot to crucify him for not eating moldy toast. With a sense of relief, he made his way to the bus stop across the street from the local coffee and donut shop, “Sweet Doughs.” His next-door neighbor, Leigh, stood there, staring at the ground.
“Hey,” Matt shouted.
Leigh looked up. “What are you doing tomorrow?”
Matt swallowed. Tomorrow was a court-ordered visit with his father. How do I explain that? Might as well be talking about aliens. Screw it, I’ll be honest. “I have to visit my dad.”
Leigh blinked. “Oh.”
The awkwardness was evident on Leigh’s face, so Matt quickly interjected, “What about you?”
“We’re going to the lake in the morning, and then to a golf tournament at the country club.”
Where the rich go to play and keep the riff-raff away. He’d seen the country club from the road. The manicured lawns and spotless facilities gleamed behind signs that said, “Private” and “No Trespassing.”
The silence stretched like over-chewed gum. “Guess what?” Leigh asked.
Matt resisted a gag-reflex. Here it comes. What did you get now? “Uh, what?”
“Got another crate of Legos; now I’ve got three.”
“Cool,” he replied. Leigh got everything, and lots of it, all year long. On the other hand, he got the yearly opportunity to drool over the glossy pages of the Sears wish book at Christmas, a joyous mirage of things he could lust for but never have. With a sigh, he pushed the glimmering image away and looked at Leigh. The boy stood there with a finger buried in his nose.
Geez, why are we friends? They had very little in common, beyond the fact they lived next door to each other. Maybe it was because no one else would associate with them. At least he knew why he was uncool and unpopular — being poor and freakishly ugly. Leigh seemed clueless. One reason was obvious — the boy was a foot shorter than nearly everyone his age. But the other didn’t appear until he opened his mouth. From that came racist jokes, hatred of Jews, and prehistoric ideas about women. All this suppressed vileness was packaged into a small frame; hence, the reason Leigh was more commonly known as the “pocket Nazi.”
Most of this Matt managed to ignore since there was an advantage to being Leigh’s ‘friend.’ Ready access to toys he could never afford and a chance to ogle Leigh’s older sister, who looked like a clone of Farrah Fawcett Majors.
A sound like rocks in a cement mixer drifted toward them, and they looked up to see the school bus chugging around the corner.