They covered me with a warm, just-out-of-the-dryer blanket.
The tight mesh on my head smashed my lashes and forced me to close my eyes. The radiation machine, about the size of a flattened beach ball, made a low whirring noise as it rose over my left side. It hovered for three seconds—one, two, three—then buzzed like a wasp and shot out a blue beam for ten seconds. I squeezed my eyes tighter closed because it was painfully bright.
The radiation smelled like the air right after lightning and just before rain.
The machine circled to my right side and began again. I tasted ozone. Then the nurses left their shielded area and unsnapped me. They helped me to the wheelchair and rolled me to my ride home. Brochures told of possible side effects: fatigue, nausea, and loss of hair.
For nearly three weeks, this was my routine. I sniffed 20 seconds of an atom bomb, and wondered if my hair would fall out before Christmas.
But one day I felt pretty good and my sister Mary talked me into going to the mall. While she tried on clothes, I made notes about my sore scalp and how happy I was that my hair hadn't fallen out.
I shoved the pen behind my ear. When I reached for it again, a hunk of my hair hung from the pen clip, and I screamed. Mary flew out of the stall still zipping her pants. "Are you okay? Did you fall?"
I stood in front of the mirror, mouth open, shaking my head and waving the pen clogged with black hair. Tears literally sprang from my eyes. "Look," I said and tossed the pen to her.
"Oh, no." She handed it back and hugged me.
I pitched the Bic in the trash and walked straight out to a cheap wig kiosk run by an Asian woman. She pretended not to notice my tears as she gathered my hair into a knot and clipped a fake ponytail on it. This would not work. It hurt, and soon the ponytail would have nothing to anchor it. The Asian woman offered a cheaper price while she unpinned the swishing nylon.
"No, but thank you," was all I could mumble as we walked away. I looked back and saw the surprise on the woman's face when she discovered her hands were full of my hair.
The end of my hair had begun.
Diane Hoover Bechtler has a BA in English and an MFA from Queens University. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Thema, Literary Journal, and The Dead Mule, among others. She is currently looking for an agent for her memoir and lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, Michael Gross, a poet with a day job, and their cat, Call Me IshMeow.
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