The supermarket's made for scalping sprouts.
"Hair today, gone tomorrow," said Theo, working the razor like magic. He'd been rehearsing for weeks in the produce storeroom, stroking peaches free of vellus with a disposable blade. Thank god for the practice: Tibby's scalp was the tenderest of territories, and the boys were crowded Roger-Bennett-Sam from showerhead to soap dish to see who would start bleeding first. Theo chased the curve of Tibby's neck in quick columns, steady and unsentimental. A thousand fruits and vegetables sitting bald in their sale bins. By Friday, not even the onions could make him cry.
"Occipital," said Doctor Ben. He named the proper bone each time Theo braced his fingers somewhere else on Tibby's head, having long since exhausted the superficial sciences. "That's the parietal, I think. Do you feel the eminence?"
By a different definition. Tibby had called Theo during his Saturday shift to ask, his voice pale and barely there beneath the deli neons. It's A.L.L. official now, he'd said. Cancer joke, probably funnier with the hand motions. Theo, you'll do it for me, won't you? Screw political correctness. I don't want it to be a ceremony, and you're the only one who won't try to be an adult about it.
You can trust me not to start sobbing, is what you mean, said Theo.
Tibby had a laugh like dry leaves. That's what I said.
They'd celebrated his birthday in the hospital that April, prednisone and party hats, fourteen candles that Tibby was too tired to blow out. Roger made a set of dominos out of tongue depressors, and their fingers were filled with splinters by the time they laid down their last doublets. Now, in the bathroom, they were all thinking about the same few things. Sam had a box of tissues ready in his lip. He dabbed at Tibby's damp cheeks before even Theo's hands could make it there.
"Zygomatic," said Ben.
"It looks good so far," said Roger. "Really."
Tibby sniffed, smiled, and touched his almost-bare scalp. "Thanks, guys. Please finish."
Theo readied the razor again, still thinking about the peaches. He wondered if the whole world was built on this sort of dichotomy. Today, Theo had a steady hand and queasy heart. Today, Tibby's eyes were already drying, but his head was weeping curls.
There is nothing scientific about eyebrows!
"Don't ever call Sam 'conventionally classical,'" said Ben, sharpening a champagne-colored eyebrow pencil over Tibby's untouched lunch tray. "He'll call you an emotionally dead methodologist and threaten to kick you in the Bunsen burner."
"God, I hope I'm there when one of you finally throws a punch!" On the days when he couldn't stomach any snacks, Tibby had anxious amphitheatre eyes, all hero-hungry and starving for gladiatorial games. "Can't you just see it now? Beakers flying everywhere, you two breaking bass guitars over each other's backs--it'd be glorious! It was the 'conventional' part that got to him, you know."
"Well, I meant it as a compliment," said Ben. He penciled in Tibby's right brow, flourishes and feathers. Supraorbital ridge, he thought. Also, 29: Order. "In the end, see, virtuosity is about technical skill. That's what people don't understand about science. The best of us only make conventions to break them."
"Hardcore, doc," said Tibby, smiling. "I bet you even prefer Bach to Beethoven."
"Damn straight," said Ben. "Do you think that Sam knows the difference between Boyle and Bohr?"
Tibby stretched. "No, none of us do. Because it Bohrs us."
Ben grinned and dragged the pencil across the center of his forehead. "Your left eyebrow begs to differ. It looks very, very interested."
"Give me that pencil," said Tibby, laughing. "I need to draw myself some pissed-off eyebrows."
Doctor Ben had a hundred and two hypotheses about who his friends thought he was. They didn't know he still clung to pseudosciences for the sheer possibility of it all, that he would've admitted to phrenology, if he'd trusted his voice to stay steady. Temporal bone, he had said. But only because he didn't have words for the look in Tibby's eyes, or the way Theo kept one stable thumb poised over Area 7 on Tibby's head. It was the one that meant Secrecy. Which Ben respected.
But what happened to Delilah?
Bullshit on convention. Throwing a tonal temper tantrum in ripped jeans, Sam was only one frayed batik scarf away from bohemian. The fight with Doctor Ben had him massacring music theory for the first time in his life, and he'd spent the whole weekend tearing pages out of biology books. Now he had Chapter Six: Cell Structure on the stand. It sounded more like the excretory system. Surprise (symphony), surprise.
"This is so mitochondrion," said Sam, glissando-ing out of control. "Oh, no! Listen! Here comes the cancer!"
Apparently cancer was in C-sharp minor and sounded suspiciously like Chopin. Halfway across the stage, Theo looked up from his cello and rolled his eyes. "How about you try playing Tibby again, sans the leukemia?"
Sam relaxed into Beethoven, Pastorale this time, a sonata like wings. He could play all the way through the allegro with his eyes closed. Theo's gaze throbbed soft and unspoken in the dip of Sam's fingers, the follicles of his hair, crackling there like static. Sam had ear-length curls that shone just right under the spotlights, but Theo could still flay him alive with one fragment of focus. They both felt too bare that night. They had given all of their hats to Tibby.
"I always thought you were going to get the first unwilling haircut, Samson," said Theo, hearing all of this in Sam's hands.
Sam switched back to the Chopin and smoothed his bangs flat as glass. "Sure sounds like me, doesn't it?" he said. Fantaisie-Impromptu. The presto that sounded like prophylaxis. "I've never taken kindly to philistines."
Home "sweet" home just happens to taste like Space Food Samplers.
Roger was seven years old when his mother disappeared into July's stagnant heat with twenty-eight dollars and a tube of waterproof mascara. That was back in Tree Point, fifty miles and six decades away from the city. His father pawned everything that smelled like her and packed up the truck with his children--three sons and a band saw--and nine years later, soundtracked by sirens, Roger sat on his tenement fire escape with a small town in his heart and Tibby's chemo schedule in his hands.
"This is embarrassing," said Roger, paging through the calendar. "Why'd you guys assign me Mondays? I'll bore him to death! His parents won't even be there! I'm not like all of you with your music and science projects. It's not like I've got a shtick."
"As long as you've got a shtick of gum, I think you'll be fine," said Ben.
That didn't make any sense until the Monday session, when Tibby finally dropped his saint-face and began fluttering under the hospital sheets like a butterfly on a pin. "Damn it! I hate this!" He was pumped with poison and anchored to intravenous appliances. Of course he hated it. "I feel like an orphan when my parents aren't here, and my mouth tastes like I've been chewing quarters!"
One of those problems had a solution, and it came wrapped in red paper and redolent of cloves.
Every week, Roger brought Tibby wax lips and chocolate cigarettes, bubblegum cigars, Professor Retro's Space Food Samplers. Roger was a city boy who kept a quiet population of 300 in his captive heart. He didn't remember much of his mother, but he could never forget the taste of home.
New locks. Old keys.
Tibby's hair was growing back straight. There were still some days when he sat up and it was all too easy--not just the conquerable fall of his bangs, but the breathing part, too; the part when he scrubbed his smiling face under the faucet and didn't wake up. It had been a strange year for all of them. They were learning new words like romance and remission. Ben's high voice bobbed between the octaves now, and Sam and Roger glared too often and looked different in jeans. A day ago, Theo had torn into traffic with four wheels and a brand new license, and Tibby had screamed shamelessly in shotgun about wanting to live to see sixteen. Last year, he had only wanted next week.
(Pessimistic, he'd said later, safe and shaking on the pavement.
Progress, said Sam, and squeezed his hand.)
Theo was waiting outside to take them to school. Tibby could hear Sam and Ben arguing over the purr of the radio, Roger's station, country catharsis on two singing fiddles. Spoiled by yesterday's adrenaline, Tibby couldn't wait to catch the wind in his new tresses. My hair is growing, thought Tibby, and cleared his front door running. My hair is growing, and so are we.