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Noggin(7)
John Corey Whaley

CHAPTER THREE

FROM THE NECK DOWN

Healthy or sick, Jeremy Pratt’s body was better than mine. I knew this because the only thing separating me from him was a straight, pink line that circumnavigated my neck. There were no stitches, though—I was told this was a thing of the past. Connecting us together, Jeremy’s body and me, was a spinal cord, blood vessels, nerve endings, and this swollen scar right in the middle of my neck about halfway between my clavicle and my chin. In time it would fade to a dull, more permanent purple.

This kid was an athlete, though—I can tell you that much. He did sit-ups and push-ups and other things that I suddenly felt pressured to try to do, just to maintain this impossible physique. But not just yet. I was still getting used to standing without help and to breathing without coughing up a lung. It was like this body was taking care of me until I was ready to take care of it. There was a six-pack, a real one, and arms that looked like real man arms, like they could actually lift something without too much effort, and a chest that was much more than the almost concave skin board I’d always known.

That first night back at home, I stood in front of the mirror that now hung on the backside of my bedroom door and just stared at myself. My hair was mostly gone, but the rest of my face looked exactly the same. Green eyes, dimples, that one little brown mole on the top of my right cheek. It was sort of like my head had been photoshopped onto someone else. I took my shirt and jeans off, stood there in only a pair of boxer briefs, and looked over every inch of my new self.

Just so you know: yeah, shit got weird. Imagine most of you is suddenly someone else, and this is the first moment of privacy you’ve gotten. The weirdest part, I guess, wasn’t seeing my new chest or stomach or legs. It wasn’t turning around to see that someone else’s ass was there below someone else’s back. And, surprisingly, it wasn’t the moment I dared to just go for it and take a good, long look at my new dick. Sure, it was weird, but it wasn’t disappointing at all, to be quite honest. The weirdest part, truly, was realizing I’d been doing all this undressing and examining and making sure the door was locked with hands that were different from my hands, with hands that had never touched Cate or knuckle-bumped with Kyle or opened my locker at school. These were Jeremy Pratt’s clever hands, and they’d fooled me into thinking they were mine.

That night in bed I couldn’t stop staring at them. The palms, the fingernails, the knuckles and backsides. The skin tone was nearly the same as the rest of me, maybe a little more tan, but not so different that I thought anyone but me would notice. The nails were longer than I liked to keep mine, so I went into the bathroom and clipped them down to the skin, like the ones I’d seen every day of my life.

“You’ll get used to it faster than you think, I bet,” Dad said the next morning at breakfast.

“I don’t believe you,” I said. And I didn’t. Again, I had someone else’s package.

“You’re taller now, you know?” Mom said.

“Taller than Dad,” I said, nodding his way. “It’s weird.”

“Six foot one,” Mom said. “You always wanted to be six feet. Well, mission accomplished.”

“There has to be a better way,” I said.

“You made the news this morning,” Dad said.

“Second miracle patient comes back to life!” Mom added, coming up behind me and squeezing my shoulders.

“I saw.”

I’d stayed up the whole night before, pretty much every night since I’d been back, flipping to different twenty-four-hour news channels to try to catch stories about me. They always said something about my return being a “miracle,” and every time I heard that word or saw it spelled out on the little scroll at the bottom of the screen, I had to close my eyes and breathe in deeply. I was back, yeah. And it was ridiculous and impossible all in one. I just wasn’t all that ready to call it a miracle.

“School’s gonna be pretty weird,” I said.

“There are lots of things that’ll make it pretty weird for a while,” Dad said. “But you’ll manage. I know you will.”

“Has anyone called for me?”

“Your grandmother. She wants to see you as soon as possible. Your aunt Cindy may drive her down next week.”

“Great. Anyone else?”

“You’ll have to give them some more time, Travis.”

“Time. More time,” I said, a bit frustrated.

“They’ll show up. Wait and see.”

I couldn’t believe I’d been awake for nearly three weeks and hadn’t heard a single thing out of Cate or Kyle. Mom and Dad kept telling me to try to understand what it must be like for them, to just try to be patient. And that only got me thinking that maybe my parents were just faking their way through all of this, that they were actually freaking out inside, their brains quietly exploding. Maybe they’d been carefully coached by Dr. Saranson and his staff. Maybe they were told to be as calm and collected as possible, at all times, for fear that too much excitement could throw me over the edge.

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