Whenever anyone would comment on how pale Lance looked, he always thought it was because he had grown up in the shadow of his brother Alec. He had been referred to so frequently as “Alec’s little brother Lance” that you’d think that phrase was his given name.
Lance was only twelve months younger than Alec, but he was definitely the overlooked little brother. He always figured that, by the time he arrived, his mom had been pregnant for practically two straight years, so when she finally got him out of her, she left him to fend for himself, just as Lance’s father had left all of them around the time he heard there was a second baby on the way.
Alec was the definition of “tall, dark and handsome”, a lanky six-two athlete with thick brown bangs swooping down over entrancingly pale eyes. In addition to his skills on the football field and basketball court, he was an excellent student and a popular guy, having won his senior class presidency unopposed. They might as well just elect him prom king by acclamation and save everyone the bother of voting. He was still weighing his options for college next year, with scouts from several universities wanting him to play football for them, and many of the same schools thinking he would be a prime catch for their electrical engineering departments.
Lance lacked his brother’s natural advantages. He was skinny and a full seven inches shorter than his brother, possessing none of Alec’s athletic skills. Lance wore nerdy glasses for his poor eyesight, but wasn’t studious, nor was he interested in geeky subjects like video games or comic books. Unlike Alec’s chiseled features. Lance still had a bit of baby fat on his oval face.
Clearly not a candidate for any of the school’s cool subgroups, Lance figured his natural home must be among the weirdos, the emo kids, the goths and the scenesters. He bought a new wardrobe, heavy on Hot Topic tees and skinny jeans in bright colors. He got pierced in several painful places where nature had wisely chosen not to put holes in the first place. He dyed his hair the color of a cherry Slurpee.
Only after making these wholesale revisions to his image did he attempt to infiltrate and anti-socialize with the misfits, at which point he discovered they could be just as exclusive and judgmental as anyone else. Plus they were a total drag to be around.
Now Lance considered himself part of the “none of the above” clique. Membership: one. As the entirety of this exclusive group, he tended to keep to himself, and his primary hobby became moping, often wandering around the empty streets of town until well after dark.
Adding to his isolation was the fact that Lance was gay. Not that he had ever officially outed himself. He figured he would just feel even lonelier if he made a big show of coming out as gay and then discovered that nobody wanted to fuck him. But anyone taking a look at Lance’s hair and his clothes could probably make an educated guess about his orientation. Occasionally, a major dickhead would threaten to pound Lance’s ass for being gay. Fortunately, Alec would usually step in to calm things down. Unlike Lance, Alec spoke fluent jock and could persuade even the most enraged musclehead to chill. Lance may have resented his older brother in many ways, but he was always appreciative for the number of beatings Alec had saved him from.
However, even Alec was unable to defuse the tension between Lance and a particularly steroidal kid named Mack who wanted to destroy Lance for being “such a fag”. When Alec intervened on Lance’s behalf, Mack was already fully committed to kicking someone’s ass and he didn’t particularly care whose. He took a swing at Alec, bloodying his nose before Alec could get in his first punch. Lance stood by proudly as his brother wailed on the big jerk, pinning him to the ground and cracking his fists into Mack’s bloated face. School security broke the two boys apart and they were taken to the principal’s office.
Lance had never felt so happy to have Alec as his big brother, until Alec appeared at Lance’s locker at the end of the school day. He pressed his younger brother against the locker door, his angry words emerging in a combination of sound and saliva.
“I’m sick of standing up for you, Lance,” Alec seethed. “Why can’t you just be normal?”
“This is normal for me,” Lance said.
“Well, it’s not normal for normal people. You think anyone’s ever gonna hire you for a decent job with that clown hair and those weird clothes and all that metal shit in your face?”
“If other people don’t like it, fuck ‘em,” Lance said, but Alec couldn’t be so lackadaisical.
“It’s easy not to give a shit when you’re not fighting your own fights. Well, you better learn how to stand up for yourself, because next year, I won’t be here to save your scrawny little ass.” Alec’s fists were clenched, but he knew his mother would be furious if she discovered that Alec had punched his brother. Instead, he pounded a fist into Lance’s locker door, breaking the skin on a couple of knuckles. He stomped away and headed to the locker room for football practice.
Lance’s meanderings were particularly lonely that afternoon. Although he and Alec had never been close, he had never heard such resentment pour from his brother’s lips.
The autumn winds were whipping fiercely, so Lance pulled his hood of his gray sweatshirt over his head and made a pit stop in his favorite little shop where he often picked up odd bits of clothing or jewelry. As usual, the place had no customers, just a wrinkled old woman hunched over the cash register.
“Evening, young man,” she said with a smile of recognition. “Looking for anything special?”
“Not really,” Lance said, flipping through racks of clothes at random, not even registering if they were his size or even for men. His mind was still fixated on Alec’s tongue-lashing.
“I sense a dark cloud over you,” said the old woman, suddenly standing mere inches behind Lance. He leapt with surprise and toppled to the floor, cracking the back of his head on the yellowed linoleum.
Lance lay there dazed for a few moments before struggling back to his feet. He was about to say he was fine, but as he peered into the old woman’s piercing gray eyes, he felt he had someone to confide in, someone who would listen to his bitching, certainly more than his brother or his mother or anyone at school. So he unloaded all of his insecurities, all of his self-loathing, all of his wishes for how his life could be better if only this or that were different. To his surprise, no matter how much he griped about how bad he had things, the woman’s face reflected nothing but kindness and understanding. When he felt he’d gotten as much off his chest as he needed, he said, “Pretty pathetic, huh?”
She smiled back comfortingly. “Not at all. We all desire that which we don’t have, assuming there’s a missing piece out there which will make us whole. If you had one wish, what would it be?”
Lance pondered it for a while before encapsulating it for the cashier. “I guess I’d like to be the popular jock and let my brother see how hard it is to be me.”
The woman raised a crooked finger and shuffled behind the counter. Rummaging in a cupboard, she produced a clunky pewter ring with an opaque black stone. She placed it in Lance’s palm. “Place this on your finger, close your eyes, and make your wish.”
Lance held up the ring skeptically. “This thing’s too big. It won’t fit on my finger.”
“It will,” she said with a smile.
Figuring he had nothing to lose by humoring the woman, Lance slid the ring up the bony ring finger of his right hand. He closed his eyes and thought, “I wish I was the straight normal guy of the family and Alec was the gay weirdo.”
Lance waited for something to happen, some tingling or a whoosh of electricity or even the tinkling of a bell, some sign to indicate that something had happened, but he just felt…normal.
“Open your eyes, Lance,” said the woman. As Lance did, he saw at the weird old woman and her musty old shop and wondered how the heck he had gotten here. He checked his watch and realized he had missed football practice. Coach was gonna ream him out for that tomorrow, and he had no good excuse to offer.
When he caught his reflection in an antique mirror, some part deep in his brain started screaming that he had changed, but it was drowned out by the rest of his brain busily reassembling itself to suit the new reality ordained by Lance’s wish. To be honest, not much about him had visibly changed. His face had retained its slight doughiness, while the obvious signs of his rebellious streak had been erased in the blink of an eye. The unnatural red of his hair had returned to its original deep brown and the piercings in his septum, lip and eyebrow had instantaneously healed. His body remained as short and skinny as ever, as the final wording of his wish was simply to be a “straight normal guy”, failing to specify a transfer of Alec’s muscles, height, or other enviable features.
He felt an unfamiliar weight on his hand and glanced down to see a bright gold ring with a red gem, which had shrunk to fit his finger as promised. It was immediately familiar to him as the state championship football ring. In the reality Lance had known until a few moments ago, it was Alec who had won such a ring with the rest of his team the previous year, although Alec thought it would be boastful to wear it all the time. But Lance’s memories had now been reshuffled so this was Lance’s own ring from last year, even though, as a bench-warmer, his contributions to the team were pretty much nonexistent. Still, Lance had been determined to make it onto the team, if only to show how macho he was compared to his sissy older brother.
As Lance hustled his way out of the strange store and tried to figure out what part of town he was in, a similar metamorphosis was taking place several miles away. Alec had finished football practice but Alec had made it part of his regimen to run the three miles home after practice for a little extra cardio. Just another way that Alec constantly pushed himself to excel. He donned his blue Abercrombie hoodie and matching sweats and began to jog along the running paths through the woods that led to his house.
At the precise moment that Lance made his wish, changes began to occur to Alec. He didn’t break stride, even as his bangs turned from brown to bright red and a brief shooting pain zinged through the cartilage of his nose. He reached up to wipe his nose and felt the silver hoop which hung from it, but his brain didn’t register its presence as anything new or unusual. His clothes grew dark and his skin grew pale, but his face retained its elegant bone structure. In his newly prescribed life as a “weirdo”, Alec was no longer interested in playing football, but his innate coordination and athleticism remained intact. His height was unchanged while his body thinned out, losing some of the mass of a football player in favor of a lean physique more suitable for a runner or…
Something clicked in Alec’s brain and he began to hear classical music, which kept him to a strict brisk pace. Instead of being devoted to sports, he was now an aspiring dancer, having begged his mother to take him to ballet classes at the age of six. He’d stuck with it through all the taunting of the simpletons at school and, worst, from his little brother Lance, who always seemed jealous of the attention Alec got for his dancing. Now all of those years of practice were paying off. Next year at this time, he would be studying on scholarship at Juilliard.
As he sprinted down the final stretch toward home, he passed his brother Lance on the sidewalk. Lance immediately tried to keep up but, even after a three-mile run, Alec was still quicker than Lance. Lance always hated that his fruity brother was in better shape than he was. Alec wasn’t even interested in girls, but they still flocked to be around him, and not just for makeup and fashion tips. Girls just seemed to enjoy being around such a handsome guy who had no ulterior motives, plus Alec had such a zest for life that was so infectious to be around and to which only his younger brother seemed to be immune. Sometimes, when girls would hear that Alec had a younger brother who was straight, they would get their hopes up, only to be disappointed that he didn’t possess Alec’s beauty and charm. As it stood now, Lance was still a virgin, although he considered himself a world-class masturbator. Then again, Lance figured Alec was probably even better at that.
As usual when their mom was working late, the boys fixed their own meals. Lance nuked a few White Castle burgers, while Alec whipped up a tofu stir-fry for himself. Right after dinner, Lance sprawled out on the couch where he would be planted for the next few hours playing “Call of Duty”. Alec knuckled down and finished his homework in a hurry, knowing that Mack was planning to drop over. Mack’s presence was always a painful reminder to Lance of the strange way Alec and Mack had met. One day after a particularly lousy scrimmage, Mack was threatening to punch out Lance for being “such a pussy”. Lance tried to fight back but was overpowered by the gargantuan linebacker. The fight only stopped when Alec happened upon them in the hallway and calmly soothed Mack’s rage. Alec could sense a vulnerability behind Mack’s bravado and, over time, they started to become friends. Eventually, encouraged by Alec’s positive example, Mack came out of the closet. Alec and Mack had been together two years now, and were voted co-kings of the prom last year.
Meanwhile, Lance pretty much stayed to himself, not good-looking enough to fit in with the cool kids or smart enough to hang with the nerds. He had no interest in mingling with the emos, the goths and the scenesters, and as hard as he tried, he was always the puniest guy on the football team, barely making the cut each year and serving as the butt of all the other jocks’ pranks. Even the coach had taken to berating him, asking why he couldn’t be more like his older brother Alec.
Lance stared at the championship ring on his finger with disgust, as if its very presence were mocking him, telling him he had something he didn’t deserve. He cracked open the front door and chucked the ring into the street.
Life was so unfair, Lance thought. If only there was some way to change it.