About-Face

The silhouettes of the boys gleamed ominously, blocking the park’s only escape route.  Gary, the shorter of the two, waved a sharp stick. It was foolish to take this shortcut, especially following the repeated and increasingly insistent threats (“We’re going to get you, faggot… just you wait!”), but Patrick still followed the secluded path every day so that he could look at a few trees on his way instead of a mess of hot pavement and featureless tract homes.   

Patrick was in the sixth grade, and since he was a transfer student, he couldn’t take the school bus; instead, he had to walk a country mile to the public bus stop, the one frequented by depressive retirees, mental patients, and lottery freaks, the kinds of dispirited human specimens one can find almost anywhere but who seemed particularly at home in his little corner of the Midwest.  That day, however, the bus folk were not his concern––it was the pair of eight-graders, Gabe James and Gary Nevins, who had been bullying him for weeks.

“We got you now, boy!” screamed Gabe, and Patrick had to admit that, hillbilly patois aside, they did.  He couldn’t run because he was carrying a hefty and unmanageable load––a packed bookbag and a saxophone case––and he feared the responsibility of leaving those possessions behind to Gabe and Gary’s destructive whims more than he feared whatever they had planned for him.  Patrick shifted the weight of his bags and soldiered on; he would walk past the boys at an even pace, thinking whatever happens, happens.

Gabe was a tall, spindly character (though not spindlier than Patrick) with a bowl haircut and a pair of bucked teeth that, from the proper angle, nearly resembled fangs.  Gary was a stouter, meatier figure whose curly red hair and perpetual scowl fostered the impression of a demonic Raggedy Andy. Of course these images were formed by a boy’s frightened and overactive imagination; seeing these children from the vantage point of adulthood would surely paint a different picture, the macabre giving way to the pathetic.

As Patrick approached, their faces became visible among the leafy shadows of the glen.  Both drew their lips back into taut, emphatic “V’s,” a pair of rictus grins that served well the intended purpose of rattling their prey.  Patrick noticed something attached to the end of Gary’s stick––something small and white and wet, perhaps plastic. As he passed between them, Gary flicked his wrist and the object at the end of the stick was promptly flung, spiraling through the air and plastering itself to Patrick’s cheek with a cold stickiness, a gloppy kind of kiss.

“Face!  Face!” chanted Gary.  He doubled over in an exaggerated display of laughter.

“Yeah, right in the face, you dirty faggot!” added Gabe.

The wetness slid from his cheek, eel-like, and dropped to the ground with a plop.  It was a used condom.

Gabe and Gary ran off, chanting “Face!  Face! Face!”

Patrick was overcome with horror, revulsion, and shame, trying to wipe residue from his cheek with trembling fingers.  On the verge of tears, he continued his journey to the bus stop. The sun beat down and the residue mingled with sweat.

The bus stop stood before an abandoned lot choked with dandelions, ragweed, and discarded fast food wrappers.  Beside the lot was a gas station adjoining a convenience store called the Drug Rite. Patrick had five minutes until his bus arrived, so he ventured inside to clean his face properly.

He approached the clerk, a bored, twenty-something white boy wearing an apron and a No Fear ballcap.

“May I use your restroom?” he asked.

“Restroom’s not for customers.  Sorry.”

“I don’t have any money, but may I have a cup of water then?”

“Cups are five cents.”

Patrick turned out his pockets.  Nothing but lint. “I don’t have any money.”

“Sorry, little bud, no cup.”

“Could I have some napkins?”

“Napkins are for customers only.”

“But they’re free, for customers?”

“Yeah, if you like, buy a food item.”

Patrick hesitated.  “My face––some dirt got on my face.  Maybe you could let me have a few?”

The clerk sighed and looked both ways.  “Listen: my boss is always up my ass cause everything’s on camera, but there’s no sound.  So what I’m gonna do is put a couple napkins on the counter, and then I’m gonna go over here and check the ICEE machine, and while I’m doing that you can take the napkins.  But wait till my back is to you.”

“Thanks.“

“Don’t thank me.  Look sad, or something.”

Looking sad wasn’t difficult.  Patrick waited until the clerk walked to the machine, snatched the napkins, and made it to his bus with seconds to spare.  He dry-wiped his face, but it didn’t make him feel any better, it only burned. He toyed with the idea of not telling anyone, but something had to be said.  Someone ought to be punished.  His face tingled in the grip of a powerful psychosomatic effect, as if it were infested with a nest of spiders, like in one of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.  He whimpered for half the ride home, then steeled himself for the bitter task of informing his parents.

#

“Are you sure it was a condom?” asked Patrick’s mother.

“Yes.”  He cupped his hand to his cheek and lowered his eyes.  There was a kind of nakedness playing across his face and it yearned to be covered up.  He already regretted his decision to tell all. His father shook his head, sadly. Humiliation forced the blood toward the surface; Patrick could feel his face burning bright red.

“We’re going to call Principal Vercraig in the morning.”

“Well… okay,” he said.  Patrick had expected his mother to fly off the handle––a strange sort of guilt-based anger had manifested itself after past reports of bullying––but for now she seemed entirely calm.  To put it in cruder, more visceral terms, what he had recounted was “wet,” and how his parents were processing it was “dry.” As such, they were stoic in a way that would be difficult to describe to a more litigious generation.

Even after washing his face five or six times and taking a bath, his face still crawled, mucky and contaminated.  He had trouble getting to sleep that night, because when he laid the soiled cheek on the pillow, he could feel something warm and writhing working away inside it, and when he exposed it to the air it began to prickle and twitch.  He thought that he’d give almost anything to take back the last eight hours.

#

The next morning, at about 8:50, Patrick was called into Principal Vercraig’s office.  The other children in his homeroom taunted him with the predictable “Ooohs,” “Uh-ohs,” and “Patrick’s in troub-bulls,” variants of which accompanied every child’s summons to the principal’s office.

Principal Vercraig was a hard man but fair, and rumor had it that he was formerly a bona fide flower child.  Today, the only traces that remained were his grey, bushy, “Skunk” Baxter-style mustache and his propensity for wearing penny loafers without socks.  When Patrick set foot inside his office, Gabe and Gary were already there, looking jittery and fearful. He felt no mad rush of power, though they clearly believed Patrick held the key to their fates.

Principal Vercraig perched on the corner of his desk, furrowed his brow, and leaned in toward Patrick.  “I understand you say that yesterday, these boys threw a, uh, condom in your face.  Is that true?”

“It was a glove!  It was a glove!” Gabe protested, as if a used surgical glove being whipped in a child’s face would have been completely innocuous.

“Quiet!  I’m asking Patrick a question,” said the Principal.

“Yes, they did,” Patrick said.

“Are you sure it was a condom?”

Horror-struck, a clenching sensation rose just below Patrick’s lungs.  The idea surfaced that he’d somehow been mistaken, and that it really hadn’t been a condom.  He was exceptionally unsure of himself in the best of times and susceptible to the confidence of liars, but he took a deep breath and regained control.  “Yes, I’m sure,” he said.

“I swear, Principal, it was a glove!  A glove! Like a hospital glove!” Gabe blurted.  His demeanor was that of a squirrel trapped in an attic.

“I said, quiet!  Now, Patrick, could you, uh, show me what it looked like?  Could you… draw me a picture?” He offered a copy of the Akron Beacon Journal and a blue BIC Cristal pen.  Patrick hesitated, embarrassed and unable to proceed. He looked up into Principal Vercraig’s grey eyes, and their sternness compelled him.  He commenced drawing a floppy, penis-shaped tube, even adding the roll of latex at the near end. This satisfied the Principal, and Patrick was excused to first period Language Arts.  He wondered what the night janitor would make of the doodle of a condom embellishing the front page of the Principal’s newspaper.

Patrick later learned that Gabe and Gary had been sentenced to a week’s worth of detention and had been given the explicit instruction to avoid him for the entirety of the school year (until their middle school “graduation”) or they would face suspension.  Somewhat surprisingly, they adhered to this stipulation, and Patrick never saw them again, in the flesh, from nearer than fifty feet.

Still, stories like this have a way of spreading, and the words “cum face” or “cum stain” would occasionally find themselves scrawled on Patrick’s locker for the remainder of the school year and beyond.  Eventually, Patrick began telling himself (and his friends) that it truly was only a surgical glove.  This made him feel considerably less sullied, though it carried the unfortunate consequence of painting him as a perjurer.  He lived in fear that his evolving viewpoint would reach the ears of Principal Vercraig, and he imagined terrifying and implausible scenarios where he would be forced to tell the tale of the condom over the PA system or at a mandatory school assembly and then the world would know his shame.  He ran his fingers across his cheek and felt the prickle of a rising blush. “It was only a glove,” he whispered.

***

Sean Gill is a writer and filmmaker who won the 2016 Sonora Review Fiction Prize, the 2017 River Styx Micro-Fiction Contest, The Cincinnati Review‘s 2018 Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Prose, and Pleiades‘ 2019 Gail B. Crump Prize. He has studied with Werner Herzog and Juan Luis Buñuel, documented public defenders for National Geographic, and other recent work has been published or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, McSweeney’s, ZYZZYVA, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.