Morris might have been uglier than Zane, but he had other strengths. He was better at sports than Zane was. He was a better artist. He was more articulate.
On the other hand, Zane generally got better grades than Morris. He was more ambitious. He was better at holding a job.
However, while people were aware of these traits, Zane was still known in many circles as “the good-looking one” and Morris was known as “not the good-looking one” or, depending on the speaker’s tact, “the ugly one.” It was the easiest way to differentiate them. And it wasn’t like Morris was grotesquely ugly. If he and Zane hadn’t been brothers, no one would have found Morris’ appearance remarkable in any way.
But it didn’t bother Morris. He liked his life. He had a few close friends that he rode dirtbikes and went tagging with. He’d been with his girlfriend Nessa for a little over a year and he felt like they were a good match. He was comfortable with her and he could only think of a handful of occasions where she’d pouted without telling him what was wrong, a habit of his previous girlfriend’s that had driven him crazy. He didn’t envy Zane. One of them had to be better-looking and there was no reason that he deserved it more than Zane did. Maybe the extent of Zane’s handsomeness was a little overboard, but why fret about it? Why fight and claw and struggle to close the gap when there was no hope of real progress?
Better to just accept life as the ugly brother and get back to designing t-shirts for his friends’ grindcore band and improving his tennis serve.
One night when Morris came home from Nessa’s house for dinner, he found Zane and his parents waiting for him in the living room. Zane was wedged between Mr. and Mrs. Grayle on a couch that was just a bit too small for all three of them to sit on at the same time.
“What’s going on?” asked Morris, slipping his backpack off of his shoulders.
“Please sit down,” said his mom.
“Or stand,” said his dad. “It doesn’t make a difference.”
“I’d prefer that he sit,” said his mom.
Mr. Grayle’s face tightened up as it always did when his wife was getting under his skin, which was often.
“I’ll sit,” said Morris. He lowered himself into the sunken, ash-colored recliner facing the couch. It was a chair that figured in his very earliest memories.
Zane kept shooting Morris very earnest looks. It made him uncomfortable. The brothers usually interacted on a certain level of casual flippancy that Morris wasn’t eager to move beyond at this point in their young lives.
“Founders’ Day is just around the corner,” began Mrs. Grayle.
“It’s eight months away,” said Morris. “Go on.”
“That may seem like a long time,” said Mrs. Grayle. “But it’s already being organized. As soon as Founders’ Day ends, the planning stage for the next one begins.”
Morris didn’t find this tidbit interesting. It seemed like his mom was waiting for him to say something, but he was content to wait her out if necessary.
“I want us to be in the Brothers’ Pageant this year,” blurted Zane.
The Brothers’ Pageant was a prestigious handsomeness competition that was held every year at the Founders’ Day celebration in honor of Rowan and Fillmore Crissle, the very handsome brothers who founded the town in 1808. Only pairs of brothers were allowed to enter the pageant and a flirtatious panel of local female business owners judged the pairs on their collective handsomeness. The winning duo received a matching pair of crowns and a matching pair of substantial college scholarships.
Morris laughed. “Well, that’s ridiculous. What’s for dinner?”
“Zane is being serious,” said Mrs. Grayle. “He would like for you and him to be in the Brothers’ Pageant this year and it would really help if you would be supportive instead of scoffing.”
“I’m laughing because I’m assuming this has to be a joke,” said Morris. “Because otherwise you’re all trying to actually humiliate me.”
“Morris,” said Mr. Grayle, leaning forward on the couch. “Don’t be like this. We know you’re not handsome enough to be in the Brother’s Pageant now. That’s what we’re here to talk to you about. We want you to get some minor plastic surgery. Nothing too dramatic. Just enough to bring you up to speed with Zane. He’ll still be carrying most of the load. You just won’t be such a liability with the judges.”
“What kind of parents’ would ask their kid to get plastic surgery?” asked Morris.
“Parents who are willing to make tough decisions for the good of their kids,” said Mr. Grayle. “All of their kids.”
“I’m not doing it!” said Morris. “I don’t want to be in the Brother’s Pageant and I don’t want to have plastic surgery! “
His mother gave him a stern, sorrowful look. “You want to go to college, don’t you? Those matching scholarships would help this family out so much.”
Morris looked at Zane, who wouldn’t meet his eye. He could tell Zane was embarrassed. This probably hadn’t been his idea. Or if it had, he at least had the good grace to be ashamed of it now.
Morris gave his parents one last look, saw that they were both prepared for a fight, and stormed down the hall to his room, locking the door behind him.
An hour later, Morris heard a soft knock on the door. “Morris? Can we talk?” He recognized his father’s voice.
“About what?” called Morris.
His dad didn’t respond. Morris pounded his forehead with the side of his fist in frustration and then got up from his desk and unlocked the door. He opened it to find his dad standing there with a solemn look on his face and his hands on his hips. He looked as if he was trying to decide how best to put a wounded fawn out its misery.
“What?” said Morris.
“Listen, Morris, I’m on your side here.”
“You changed your mind? You don’t think I should get plastic surgery and be in the Brother’s Pageant?”
Mr. Grayle gave a self-conscious chuckle. “Well, no, I still think you should do that, but…”
“Then how are you on my side?”
Mr. Grayle was stumped. He screwed up his lips and said nothing.
“So you’re still on mom and Zane’s side?”
“I guess so,” said Mr. Grayle. “But would life really be so bad if you were a little handsomer?”
“I’ll pay for my own college,” said Morris. “I’d rather do that than get plastic surgery in order to be just a little less handsome than Zane.”
“Your mother and I love you the way you are,” said Mr. Grayle. “The surgery would only be for the purpose of winning the pageant.”
“I like how I look,” shouted Morris, upset that he was getting upset again. “I don’t want plastic surgery!” He slammed his bedroom door in his father’s face and did not feel badly about it.
Later, Morris left his room to warm up some leftovers from the dinner he’d skipped. His mom tried to hug him, but he knew it was just so she could bring up the surgery and pageant topic again, so he evaded her grasp and fled back to his room with a plate of lukewarm pork chops and corn. After eating, he called Nessa.
“Don’t get the surgery,” said Nessa.
“I’m not going to,” said Morris.
“Good. I don’t want you to.”
“Is it because you like how I look now so much? Because even though I’m not the best looking guy, my appearance is part of my identity?”
“Kind of,” said Nessa. “And also I’m worried that if you get handsomer, you’ll decide you’re out of my league and you’ll dump me for someone prettier.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Morris.
“You say that now. But what about after the surgery?”
“I’m not getting the surgery.”
“You wouldn’t like it if I was just a little handsomer?”
“You’re going to be handsomer?”
“No. This is strictly hypothetical.”
“Well,” said Nessa. “I wouldn’t mind it if your ears stuck out a little less.”
The next morning, the brothers rode most of the way to school in silence as Morris drove them in his tiny pickup truck. There was a thin, uneven fog lying across the county roads and Morris, as usual, drove too fast. The radio was tuned to the oldies channel because their morning DJs were the least obnoxious.
Morris kept waiting for Zane to broach the obvious subject, but all he did was look out the window and clear his throat. Finally, Morris said, “You don’t really want me to get the surgery, do you?”
He glanced over at Zane, who was shrugging.
“You do?” Morris couldn’t tell if what he was seeing was a new shrug or just an extension of the first shrug.
“I just don’t care about handsomeness,” said Morris. “It’s not something I value.”
Zane turned to face him, his eyes brimming with tears. “Then what difference does it make to you if you’re a little handsomer? If you don’t care one way or the other, then why not just do it to help us out?”
Morris was taken aback by the emotion in his brother’s voice.
“What good have my good looks ever done me?” asked Zane. “A bunch of cute, shallow girlfriends? What else? Preferential treatment from waitresses? Ooh, big deal! This is a chance for my handsomeness to actually pay off for once!”
“I didn’t know you felt like this,” said Morris as they pulled into the school parking lot, narrowly avoiding collision after collision with other students.
Zane wasn’t finished. “You think I like being ‘the good-looking one?’ I’m not saying it’s as bad as being the ‘not good-looking one,’ but it reduces me to my looks just like it does to you. If you were just a little handsomer, maybe people would bother to find out more about us, you know?”
Morris pulled into a parking spot and turned off the truck. A girl in a sports car with a smashed out headlight pulled into the spot on Zane’s side of the truck and, completely oblivious, slammed her door into the side of the truck as she exited her car. “Do you think mom and dad will pay to put my face back the way it was after the pageant if I don’t like it?”
“No. Who’d want to pay good money to make someone they love uglier again?”
Two days later, Morris buckled.
Nessa didn’t hide her pleasure well. She kept making Morris promise her he wouldn’t dump her after the surgery.
A month later, Morris went under the knife.
When it was time for the bandages to come off, the entire Grayle family and Nessa gathered in the room as the doctor removed the strips of gauze from Morris’s new features. Before the bandages were even half off, it was clear that something had gone wrong.
Morris was too handsome.
Far too handsome.
Morris’s family edged away from him and huddled together with their backs against the door to the examination room. Nessa wept quietly in fear.
“What have we done?” asked Mrs. Grayle in a panicky voice.
The doctor shook his head in disbelief as he removed the last of the bandages and dabbed at Morris’s stunning new face with cotton swabs. “I’ve heard of this before,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like the minor adjustments we made should have produced such a profound effect, but sometimes with faces, the whole is more than the sum of the parts. In this case, much much more. It can’t be predicted.”
“Nessa,” said Morris with a beautiful expression of concern. “Why are you crying?”
“We’re ugly,” said Nessa through her sobs. “We’re all so ugly now.”
Zane kept trying to look away but could not. Mr. Grayle looked as if he was shrinking very slowly. Mrs. Grayle kept mouthing apologies, though Morris wasn’t sure to whom.
The doctor handed Morris a mirror. The face that looked back at him shook his soul and altered every thought in his head, remade every memory in his heart. Minutes later, when Morris looked up again, it was as if everyone else in the room had been transformed into a gargoyle.