Fiction

Hydrogen

By: James Bates

I remember hearing the song by Three Dog Night, “One Is the Loneliest Number,” and thinking, Yeah, that’s me. All by myself. No one cares.

Now I see that thought for what it really was, a cry in the night from a frightened six-year-old kid whose parents abandoned him to the child welfare system, leaving me all by myself, scared and alone, wondering if this foster home thing was going to work out.

Fortunately, it did. Early on, I bonded with my older foster brother Tony. His parents were crack addicts and he’d been removed from them when he was three years old and put into the system. He was four years older than me and pretty smart. He read books to me, took me on bicycle rides and taught me to fish.

One of my best memories with Tony was when I was in eighth grade. I had tip-toed from the bathroom and into the bedroom we shared. I quietly closed the door and asked “What do you think about this?” Earlier, I’d snuck into the bathroom and bleached my hair with hydrogen peroxide like some of my classmates were doing.

He put down the book he was reading and gave me a long once over. I watched as his expression changed from horrified to bemused. “To be honest,” he said, shaking his head, “it looks pretty bad.” I fought back a sudden unexpected flow of tears. All I had wanted was fit in with my classmates. “Here,” he said, standing up and taking me by the arm. “Come on. Let’s see what we can do to remedy this situation.”

He took me into the bathroom and stood me in front of the mirror. “Look.”

I looked closely at my bleached hair. Normally a rich dark brown, it was now a bright, wheat colored yellow. Some of it was orange. The closer I looked, the more embarrassed I felt.

I met his eyes in the mirror, “I guess you’re right,” I told him. “It looks pretty bad.” I felt the tears welling up again. “I’m so stupid.”

In the mirror Tony said, “Hey, relax, It’s not the end of the world. Your hair will go back to its normal color. Eventually.”

I used as Kleenex to wipe my nose. “I can’t believe I did such a dumb thing.”

“Don’t worry about it.” He mused my hair. “We all make mistakes.” Just talking to him made me feel a little better. No much, but a little. Tony was a senior in high school, good looking and popular. He didn’t need to waste time with a stupid kid like me, but he did. “Here, let me show you something.”

Even though I didn’t need it, he opened the cupboard, took out a can of Gillette shaving cream and spent the next fifteen minutes teaching me how to shave with a trac-two razor. I thought it was the coolest thing that ever happened to me. He even let me use some of his aftershave. Agua Velva. It smelled great.

We became very close after that. I’m not the brightest bulb in the pack, but Tony watched out for me and showed me stuff and helped me navigate the next four years of my life. I eventually graduated from high school. Whenever I was feeling down about my grades, he’d remind me, “There’s more to life than book learning, Warren. At least you try.” And I did. I tired as hard as I could.

 In fact, I still do. I work as a stock boy at a local grocery store, and I ride the bus to and from our apartment to work. That’s right, our apartment. After I graduated, Tony asked me if I wanted to move in with him. “Because we’re buddies,” he told me at the time.

Well, yeah. “Sure!” I told him. “Thanks.”

So, he and I have our own place. He tells me he’s proud of me. I pull my own weight and ‘pay my own way’ as the saying goes. It makes me feel proud to help out. I might have been lost in the system if not for Tony. I was lucky to have met him. I still consider myself lucky.

“We’re roommates for life,” he often tells me. “I’ll always have your back.” You know what? I not only have a brother, but a friend. And I’m not lonely anymore. Not like I was before I met Tony. I was sad then. Now, I’m not. In fact, I’ve never been happier. We’re even thinking of getting a pet. Maybe a cat. I love to have something to take care of like Tony does for me. That’d be so cool. And if we do, I’m thinking of naming him Hydro because of that thing years ago with the hydrogen peroxide. I think it’s a great name.

Categories: Fiction

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