Dayton Abraham’s War
The door locked, the homework wrestled into submission, the sister sulking in her bedroom down the hallway, the parents downstairs in a fog of adulthood, Dayton Abraham stood in front of his bathroom mirror and declared war on his own face.
It was six-thirty, and once more into the breach! Onward finger-soldiers marching off to war! A great timeless battle waged against a conscienceless antagonist, the most insidious ever known: zits!
Dayton Abraham remembered the dark bleak day when he awoke and stumbled into the bathroom, sleep-addled mind still trying to steer him back into the warm cocoon of his bed, to discover that his face had utterly rebelled. What he had at first thought was a troublesome bug bite on his chin had now sprouted a snowcapped peak like a Colorado mountain range. He poked it carefully, dismayed and yet fascinated to discover that he, too, had not escaped the scourge, and was promptly rewarded by a lightning-bolt of pain that made his entire face contort with surprise and shock.
His knees wobbled, his breathing stuttered, his mouth watered and his eyes rolled back into his head, and had his sister (suffering a scourge of her own) opened the door she might have thought he was having a heart attack, seemingly improbable at fifteen years of age but not altogether impossible.
Dayton steadied himself, gripping the sink in a righthanded deathgrip that he would come to know all too well in the coming years, and blew out his breath in a rush before opening his eyes and looking at it again.
There it was still, now red and angry and much more conspicuous, and Dayton knew then and there that his life was about to change, and for the worse, since this was the day that he was to ask Sarah Buttons to the Friday night dance.
And now… this. This abominable act of bioterrorism, from his own traitorous body. It was sickening.
Dayton knew he had to think quickly because he was running out of time. The clock in his bedroom had read 6:07am when he finally, begrudgingly placed his feet on the cold floor and stepped towards the bathroom for the morning voiding ritual, which gave him approximately three more minutes, give or take a minute or two in either direction, before Eileen started banging on the door and screeching for him to get his smelly ass out of there or she was going to tell Mom and Dad he was hogging the bathroom again.
Three minutes. Or, considering the Eileen Factor, two to five.
Dayton regrouped and tried again, raising his arms horizontally and placing one fingertip on either side of the offending carbuncle, as he’d seen in a movie once, and squeezed gently, gritting his teeth for the pain he was certain would knock him backwards into the tub and unconsciousness.
Instead he was treated to the most incredible special effect he had ever witnessed in his life. The skin around his fingers flushed white as he pushed, and for a second he thought about pulling back, that it was a bad idea, when the zit pulsed outward and blammo!
A spectacular jet of red-white lava erupted from his chin and splattered in a Technicolor splash across the surface of the mirror, the piff! sound in his head resonating in his head like a gunshot in an echo chamber. Thus emptied, the zit became a briefly-open wound, a crimson tide seeping through two bunched-up handfuls of toilet paper before finally retreating back behind the skin’s enemy line.
Pride filled Dayton’s chest, his back straightening, his ears ringing. His chin was still dripping but he felt more awake and alive than he ever had before, and he grinned at his reflection and winked maniacally. The hell with all this sex business, he thought; now manliness has found me. This battle has been won.
Sarah Buttons, thankfully, had not seemed to notice his affliction. Dayton, on that fateful Thursday, had ransacked his brain trying to think of a way to disguise it, but the more he swiped at his chin, the redder and more angry-looking his skin became, and eventually he had to admit defeat. He just hoped that when the time came for the great proposition it wouldn’t show too badly.
When Sarah Buttons met his eyes in homeroom, as she had for the last week or so, there seemed to be nothing different, the same pleasant smile that set his stomach atwirl, behind which, he knew, was a vast fountain of ardor meant only for him, forcing him to momentarily revise the accepted definition of “manliness,” and discovering to his admitted dismay that his actual experience fell far short.
All the preparations had been made. The networking had been accomplished with a precision that would have made the CIA sick with envy; the right glancing queries aimed at the right people, innocuous yet just direct enough, so as not to get the wrong people asking the wrong questions. The careful maneuvering around the parental units, hints subtle and refined and artful, testing for openings and widening preexisting ones. The meticulous setting-aside of lunch funds, dining instead on cookies and water at noontime and immediately tearing into the pantry once he got home, prompting his mother to coo lovingly, “Oooh, what a hungry growing boy!” Dayton would merely smile beatifically, as was his duty, and further map the scheme in his head, attempting to leave nothing to chance.
And so, with the countdown clock ticking towards the inevitable, Dayton huddled with Artie Meyer and George Geoffries, waiting for the moment to strike. Facial warfare, Dayton thought as he surveyed the hallway, was much less nerve-wracking.
“Well?” Artie Meyer asked. Artie Meyer had bad teeth and good grades, and also loomed over Dayton by a good ten inches. This “growth spurt” phenomenon, of which Dayton had heard rumors, had located his friend and upgraded it from rumor to fact, and well before his other friends, at that. Artie Meyer had also claimed to have made it further down the path, so to speak, than either Dayton or George, neither of whom could quite fathom Artie getting within spitting distance of Jennifer Godshall, let alone getting his hand up her shirt.
“She’s got Chem lab with Dr. Z,” Dayton said, trying not to think about his chances and failing miserably.
“I heard she got asked by Danny Daniels,” said George, who was crazy.
“You’re crazy,” Dayton retorted.
“Whatever. Danny Daniels asked her is what I heard.” George shrugged, looking as bored as he sounded. When Dayton had mentioned to them that he wanted to ask Sarah Buttons to the dance, Artie had nodded frantically, while George faked an enormous yawn and proceeded to play “The Flight of the Bumblebee” through his nose.
“Danny Daniels is an aaaaasshoollle,” Artie said, clearly relishing the obscenity as it rolled off his tongue. When Artie swore, he pronounced the words very carefully, enjoying every licentious second, while his eyes darted around to make sure no members of the Thought Police heard him.
“Where is she?” Dayton asked, checking his watch. The bells for the next class were about to ring and the seven minutes were almost up.
“Where’s Danny Daniels?” George asked.
“Shut up, dickhead!” Dayton spat. He was starting to sweat. This was not how it was supposed to go down. Sarah Buttons was supposed to come out of Chem lab by herself, as she always did, and Dayton was going to catch her before she could make it to her locker, ambush her with the note that was in his pocket, one which made his request in the most proper and formal language he could muster, but now it was probably soggy from the moisture that was pooling in his palms and the ink was probably running and what looked like Will you go to the dance with me on Friday? was probably going to come out looking like Willyo goat the dunce wimme in Firday?
“Hey, Dayton, can I talk with you a minute?” Dayton’s heart leapt into the back of his throat and crouched there, trembling, as he turned around and saw Sarah Buttons standing there, directing her pleasant smile right at him.
“Uhh…” he began, and poof, Artie and George disappeared into thin air. Dayton coughed, like it was the most normal thing in the world, and tried to speak, to make those word-things come out more smoothly. “Yeah. Hi. What’s up?”
“Oh, nothing!” she sang, looking for all the world like she might twirl in place like a ballerina in a music box, and Dayton had the sudden thought that she knew something he didn’t. Had someone spied? Did she know of his intentions? Was she coming to him to accept, so overflowing with joy at being asked to the dance by the one and only Dayton Abraham that she was graciously saving him from the humiliating trouble of actually having to ask her?
“But,” she said, her voice dropping to a low, conspiratorial tone, stepping forward a half-step and leaning in like state secrets were about to pass between them, “I have to ask you something.”
“Okay” was all Dayton could muster. He knew what he should be saying, SarahButtonswillyougotothedancewithmeonFriday, but his mouth suddenly seemed to be under someone else’s control.
“Will you –“ and Dayton’s heart techno-thumped in his chest, flipping and flapping like a fish on a hook, yesyesYES! — “go out with Gracie Moorhead?”
And all poor, stunned, flabbergasted and heartbroken Dayton Abraham could manage to say was, “Who the hell is Gracie Moorhead?”
Gracie Moorhead. One half of the Moorhead twins, identical redheads with sunken dolls’ eyes, strange gangly limbs and freckles everywhere. They openly hated each other. They never wore the same outfits to school, never could be seen speaking to one another, and rarely occupied the same radius of space. Yet they were still inseparable, bound together evil genetics and novelty value. In the world they moved in they were one of a kind, a combined unit put on the earth expressly for the purpose of allowing everyone else to shake their head and smile skyward and marvel at the mysteries of nature. And now Dayton Abraham was dating half of one of the earth’s cosmic pranks.
It commenced at the Friday night dance, when Sarah Buttons, obviously relishing every second of her matchmaking victory, made the formal introductions.
“Dayton,” she said, shoving Gracie Moorhead into position in front of him, “say hi to Gracie!”
Dayton looked at her, giving her as much of the benefit of the doubt as he could muster. The floral print dress had tatters. The shoes were scuffed. The hands were twisted into an incomprehensible panicky knot and the hair appeared not to cooperate. Yet when he met her eyes she smiled, both bashful and hopeful, and he understood that she was as nervous as he was and didn’t mean him any harm, and that in spite of his failure with Sarah Buttons, Option B was now staring at him expectantly.
That was when the Slow Song started. Ah, the Slow Song. The band/music/lyrics to the Slow Song did not matter, have not and will never; what mattered was only the deliberate tempo and quasi-romantic tone that meant actual close contact, for those brave enough to try. It was the officially sanctioned OK to march forth into mystery. So Dayton sucked in a deep breath and summoned the strength to shove forth the five magical words:
“Do you want to dance?”
Gracie’s head ducked towards the floor in response and she shuffled towards the dance area. Dayton took this as an affirmative and followed, feeling lightheaded. Once onto the dance floor, they faced each other. Dayton first raised his left arm, but she raised her right, and their knuckles met with a sharp crack.
“I’m sorry!” Dayton said. He grabbed her hand without thinking, started to rub it gallantly, then dropped it almost as quickly. “Sorry. Uhm. How do we do this?”
So Gracie Moorhead stepped forward, grabbed his left arm and wrapped it around the small of her back, pulling him in close to her as she grabbed his right in a deathgrip with her left. Deathgrip-deathgrip-oh-God-not-now! his mind screamed. His body was revolting again, the infernal traitorous bag of bones! Bones, no! No bones! No bones here!
So he arched his back and puffed his chest out while shoving his hips backward, feverishly hoping it looked like a dance move, and promptly stomped on her foot. Gracie, to her credit, merely winced and pulled her further-damaged shoe from under his, and stepped carefully around his feet, pulling him into the side-to-side swaying that constituted dancing for young people who had yet to discover what their hips were for.
They did not look at each other, moving only in a slow oval around the dance floor, Dayton’s eyes scanning blankly across all the other faces, seeing Artie’s eyes following Jennifer Godshall everywhere, as she drank punch, ate candy, talked, breathed, was, and George hiding in a far dark corner and glaring, looking up between paragraphs of Orwell just long enough to transmit his hatred of them all as clearly as he could and probably wondering why in the hell he’d even come in the first place.
“Having a fun night?” Dayton said into the thistle of red hair next to his mouth, hoping that there was an ear in there somewhere that picked up the transmission.
“I guess,” came the reply. Dayton sensed this was not going well.
“Ah, well, these things usually stink,” he replied.
“Yeah, tell me about it. I’d rather be at home, watching TGIF.”
One, two, one, two, back and forth, steady as a metronome. Dayton sensed the song was coming to an end and risked all, tightening his grip around her midsection ever so slightly, and finding to his shock that her grip on his right hand tightened as well. He was surprised to find his heart pounding, despite the fact that he barely knew this girl, had hardly even registered her presence in the two classes they had together and had apparently missed the small hopeful glances that had been directed his way while he was scheming to make Sarah Buttons his, and as the song came to a close, he pulled away from her ever so slightly and got his first good close-up look at her face, and discovered, to his rapture, a tiny whitecapped blemish perched on her cheekbone like a radio tower sending a distress signal into a long dark night.
Thank God we have something to talk about!
In three months of mortal combat Dayton had discovered that the zits came in many varying calibers. There were the blackheads that hid in the crook of his nose and the expanse of his forehead; squeezing them out left a neat, clean pinprick hole that never failed to fascinate him. There were the redheads which grew to terrifying proportions and hurt to the touch, yet touch them he had to, and when he finally steeled himself for excavation, they yielded a revolting explosion of pus and blood that often required the use of glass cleaner to remove from the mirror. Then there were the deeper ones that started below the base of the skin and stayed there, gestating, like a tremor before an earthquake. When they finally reached the surface of his skin they swelled upwards in a mighty red dome like a button on a video game console. When these came, he found himself wishing for the relative familiarity of whiteheads, which at this point he felt he could deal with efficiently; they were messy but nowhere near as traumatic.
Dayton’s face was not the only battleground. He’d found them everywhere. A couple inside his right ear; he’d awoken one morning and made it almost to school before realizing one had popped during the night and that his ear was filled with the half-dried residue. He pressed the ear gingerly to make sure the job was done, and felt/heard a wet crunch. He kept his head down and acted as though the side of his head was terribly itchy until he could make it to the bathroom and clean it out with toilet paper and Q-tips. They showed up on his back, on his legs, on his arms, inside his nose, on his ass and even, once, on his penis. Upon making that particular discovery, he’d gone straight to the musty encyclopedias his dad kept in a box in the basement to make sure acne was not the first symptom of some horrible disease requiring amputation. Thankfully, it went away relatively quickly and never reappeared, leaving Dayton weak-kneed with relief.
Nonetheless, just to be on the safe side, should Gracie Moorhead ever become as adventurous as she hinted at being, he allowed his mother to make an appointment with the dermatologist. The first visit did not bode well for his future, he thought. The décor of the waiting room probably made his mother nostalgic, but it made him almost physically ill. Cheap wood paneling that he used to see on people’s basement walls, pushbuttons lining the wall, their functions mysterious and unexplained, a sliding glass partition between the receptionists who no doubt made fun of the waiting room’s occupants, and, worst of all, nauseating diagrams and pamphlets with unsettling titles like Your Skin, Your Life! and Ten Common Myths About Acne and A Dermatologist’s Guide to Healthy Skin Care.
Gracie had pouted when he told her he couldn’t eat lunch with her that day. “Why not?” she asked. Dayton shrugged, shuffled his feet. Classes were changing and there wasn’t much time.
“I gotta doctor’s appointment,” he mumbled. He didn’t dare speak of it in the hall, someone might hear.
“What kind? I mean, I wanted to, you know, walk with you and tell you about Mrs. Daniels and her crazy class and, uhm, we haven’t had much alone time lately –“
Then the bell rang. Dayton reached out awkwardly and patted her on her head, muttering, “I’ll call you later,” and made off. Gracie watched him go and walked wordlessly into the bathroom and stayed there. Later, sitting in math class and staring blankly at geometry problems he had no chance of understanding, Dayton found himself wondering why he didn’t want to explain to her what the real reason was.
“How’s things?” Artie had asked oh-so-casually during lunch one day. George merely glowered crazily at them both from the other side of the table.
“What do you mean, things?” Dayton asked, He knew full well what Artie was talking about but decided to play dumb for the moment.
“Are you, like, getting somewhere with this Gracie Moorhead thing?”
Dayton didn’t know what to say. Talking with Gracie made him not want to talk to anyone else. For hours and hours they talked, sometimes at school but mostly on the phone. Gracie’s family lived twenty miles outside of town and they never got to spend much time getting to know each other in person. When they saw each other in school Dayton always felt a momentary hesitation before going to her, like he had to realign the voice on the other end of the phone with the person that was standing in front of him, beaming happily. The feeling usually went away quickly but it still hummed in the background sometimes, more so than it had to begin with.
She was a nice girl, really. She seemed fascinated by everything he had to say, most of which he knew to be foolish nonsense, but it didn’t seem to matter. She told him all about her family, her pets, her dogs, what she ate for breakfast that morning, what she did before going to bed. She told him all about her sister, whom Dayton could tell apart easily once he got to know them both. Maggie never paid much attention to him, and Gracie said that she didn’t like him, but it didn’t really matter, he was Gracie’s boyfriend, not Maggie’s. Still, there were one or two times when he would see Gracie in the hall and briefly think it was Maggie and catch himself averting his eyes until he caught the look of hurt that flashed through her face and had to run to her to apologize. And sometimes, more so lately, he would see the back of one’s head from a distance and catch himself wishing he didn’t know the difference, that it was like before, when they were just a novelty to him, a distant echo.
So Dayton just shrugged and told Artie that it was none of his business, and continued to worry about the doctor’s appointment, which was about to commence.
He had expected to walk into the waiting room and see people with hideous facial deformities, faces riddled with the scars of warfare, like an old battlefield whose placid coat of green grass could not hide the pockmarks of grenades and mines and bombs. Or, worse, people he knew from school or friends of his parents, people who would tell Gracie that he was being treated for a mysterious disease, people who he would have to hide from, scarlet shame coloring his already-compromised visage. But when he opened the door and slid inside he saw nothing but the same type of potpourri of faces he’d glimpse at the grocery store or in the library or on the sidewalk, faces so vividly different from one another that they blended into a symphony of normalcy.
For a single dark moment he wondered if their problems lay hidden beneath their clothes and if his cock had indeed crowed its last, before surrendering to the relieving realization that if all these different people had a problem like him then he wasn’t alone and there was probably a way to fix it. Just to be safe, when the dermatologist asked him if he’d broken out anywhere else besides his face, he lied his ass off. Some things were just too embarrassing to admit. Even to an MD.
Gracie Moorhead, in the meantime, seemed not to be bothered by the battle scars that were marching across Dayton’s head, blinking on in one place, disappearing and then reappearing in another, like stars in a bad space movie. Having suffered blemishes of her own, they made him seem more endearing; indeed, at most times she never noticed them, concentrating instead on her own afflictions and praying fervently, kneeling every night as she did to the crucifix mounted just above the light switch in her bedroom, that Dayton never noticed them.
Their relationship, she thought, had started out well enough, starting that night at the dance with the exchange of phone numbers, Sarah Buttons excitedly pouring encouragement and advice into her ear when Dayton ran off to confer with his two ragdoll buddies. Four months down the line and there was regular phone conversation, intermittent handholding and the occasional “accidental” brushing of certain areas with an elbow or knee, neither quite daring to take the plunge quite yet into arenas both terrifying and thrilling. Dayton seemed a little addled at first, like he couldn’t quite believe his good fortune at landing someone like her, but he seemed to be coming around, and the fact that she might have beaten her evil sister to the punch for a change never failed to egg her on, to compel him to fall for her, deeper and deeper. But Thursday, the doctor’s appointment and Dayton’s sudden avoidance of her, and her missing the next class, sitting as she did in the bathroom stall, not doing anything, not upset or crying but just sitting there, wondering if it was something she’d done, some button she’d pushed, some word she’d said, and it all made her feel sad and anxious and unwanted.
“Well?” her sister asked as Gracie came up for air, her nightly ministration complete.
Gracie scowled, hearing in the single syllable Maggie’s trademark cocktail of envy, spite and provocation. Gracie understood that they were pegged as “identical” twins, medically speaking, but when she looked at her sister she simply did not see the same person that stared back at her in the mirror every morning. Maggie’s eyes were wider, her mouth narrower, her toes stubbier, her voice raspier. She even had a birthmark that Gracie did not share, a pinkish stain on the underside of her left knee, a fact that gave Gracie some solace when someone saw them together and gasped and stared and smiled. Friends, relatives, perfect strangers, it didn’t matter, they all stared like they were escapees from a zoo somewhere, like they were supposed to be found in dance halls batting beach balls off each other’s noses like seals in a circus, instead of getting up in the morning and eating breakfast and going to school like every other kid in the world, and when they stared Gracie just thought of the birthmark and grit her teeth and bore it as best as she could, because she knew the truth and they didn’t.
“Well, what?” Gracie sighed as she climbed into the top bunk. She’d suddenly decided that she was too tired to fight tonight, that all she wanted to do was write Dayton the note she’d been preparing in her head all day and then fall into a nice dreamy sleep.
“Did you get what you asked for?”
“I don’t ask for anything,” she said, pulling the covers over her nightgown and reaching for the notepad that she’d left on the windowsill.
“It’s all a big sham,” came the voice from below.
“Maggie, stop it. You’re just being mean for no reason.”
“I know something you don’t.”
“Fine.” Gracie went back to the note. She started from the center and worked outward, drawing first a small rectangular shape in the center of the page, then four diamond shapes around it.
“Somebody told me Dayton was going to ask Sarah Buttons to the dance but she asked him about you first,” came the voice from below, oh so satisfied with itself.
Gracie said nothing, just kept on drawing, sketching out the lines between the bases, as well as outfield (why not?). She started working on the note proper but stopped as Maggie’s voice slid serpentlike into her ears again.
“Somebody told me that he was going to ask Sarah Buttons to the prom too, no matter what.”
“You’re being a bitch,” Gracie said, and drew a dotted line from first base and halfway to second, an arrow dead-ending it in a big triple question mark.
First base had indeed been reached, that previous Friday. Dayton had been avoiding her all day, looking at her strangely, making her wonder if the thing on her cheek had come back (the same thing he had in abundance but that didn’t matter to her, he was her boyfriend), and during the gym class they shared, he came up to her and, his voice odd and strangled, asked her what she would say if he asked her to kiss him.
Their voices were hidden beneath the thump of feet on gym mats, grunts, the occasional bark of laughter, the stentorian boom of the gym teacher’s voice. Gymnastics was the unit for the month and it seemed strange to be having this kind of conversation while surrounded by bodies flipping and twisting and turning and sailing around chrome bars and over beaten hobby-horses that had holes covered with duct tape. This was the type of thing you did while, like, sitting on a blanket in a park, eating cheese and crackers and the guy looks into your eyes all romantic-like and so on and so forth, right? Right?
Still, her heart seemed to squeeze and swell in her chest and she said, more to the gym mat than to Dayton, “I’d say yes.”
So they did like they always did at the end of every day, walked hand-in-hand to the buses when school was over, only today they dithered and tarried longer than usual, and when the last kid boarded the last bus Dayton took a deep breath and half-turned to her and said, “Okay, kiss me.” She wheeled into him, standing on her tiptoes, and shoved her head forward, managing to catch his upper lip and none of his lower with her own, and then turned and bolted into her bus. When she got inside the entire bus burst into applause and she rode the entire way home flushed as scarlet as her hair and spent the whole weekend on the phone with him, wishing that she didn’t live out in the middle of nowhere with a sadistic twin who enjoyed making her squirm, and that she could run around in town with him and hold his hand and maybe try again and make it better.
“I’m telling you, he’s a big jerk and he’s going to dump you,” Maggie hissed from below.
“He will not! Be quiet and stop it!” Her voice quavered and she knew she was letting Maggie win by letting on she was upset, but there was no stopping this now. “I kissed him today! He’s nice to me! He will not do any such thing!”
Silence from below, then the bedframe rumbled as Maggie clamored out and stood looking at her.
“He kissed you?”
“Yeah.” She regretted even saying anything. It escaped before she could catch it, the admission, and now she was already regretting it.
But Maggie’s face had lost its malice and was only filled with surprise and curiosity.
“What was it like?”
Gracie pushed the drawing aside and pulled her knees into her chest, thinking. “It was. I dunno. Strange. Not like what I thought.”
“Tell me what happened.”
“No. You’re just gonna be mean to me.”
“Gracie. Come on. Weren’t you excited? I mean, you kissed a boy. I’ve never kissed a boy. There was that one time with Scott Bradley but that didn’t count –“
“Talk to me about jerks –“
“Exactly!” Maggie sang, mouth still gaping with wonder, astonishment. “You kissed someone, you know, that you liked! What was it like?”
“It was like… like…” The throbbing burn in her stomach, the stuttering heart, the ringing in her ears, the weird rubbery feel of his one lip on her two, the excitement, the disappointment at the same time — all of that crowded together in her head and no words that fit came to her tongue, so she just shrugged.
“You’ll see,” she said, and she viciously savored the scowl that came back onto her sister’s face. The bunk bed rattled briefly as Maggie crawled back into bed, then settled. Gracie picked up the pencil and notepad and put the finishing touches on the note to her boyfriend, drawing hearts where the dots on the question marks should be and scrawling beneath it, “I thought yesterday was great!!!! Can’t wait to do it again!!!! XOXO Gracie!!!”
Dayton had tried everything. He washed his face twice a day, sometimes three, on the weekend as many as four or five times, his skin getting flaked with soap and chapped by dryness. Alcohol wipes that he’d pour onto square cotton pads and swipe across the battlefield, wincing at the sting but masochistically savoring it as well. The soaps from the dermatologist did nothing, merely postponed the enemy invasion until a slightly later date. One prescription application came in a metal tube that speckled chipped paint onto the sink as he folded it upwards. The medicine inside it had no discernable effect. He tried the over-the-counter stuff that his sister had been hiding in the recesses of his cabinet. He tried washing his pillowcases every night. He tried not eating so much chocolate. He even tried, er, deathgripping slightly less than usual. Nothing worked.
Dayton was losing the war. He knew this because Pompeii had appeared on his cheek.
He found himself wishing that there was faint white lettering etched onto the bottom of his bathroom that said something like “OBJECTS ARE SMALLER THAN THEY APPEAR,” like on the sideview mirrors on his mom’s station wagon, because this thing, this monstrosity, was beginning to need its own ZIP code. A fleshy bulge in the dead center of his chin that had taken on more different shades and shapes than a geometry coloring book. Dayton was afraid of it, afraid to touch it, afraid to even look at it. He’d started out trying to scrub it harder than the rest of his face but it just grew and grew, and now he was terrified that if he tried to pop it he’d end up with a dimple in his chin the size of a bullet hole. But it was Pompeii and it was going to blow sooner or later, and then what?
Gracie had not said anything. Gracie had not said much to him at all lately, especially since he’d not acknowledged the road map he’d found in his locker. He had been smart enough not to open it in front of Artie or George, for fear of the inevitable two hours of abuse he would have had to endure for deigning to receive a note from his girlfriend (Artie: “your bowlegged puuuuuuussssssyyyy,” George: “your bloodheaded playtoy”). When he did finally open it, sitting as he usually did in the front of the school bus, right behind the driver, so as to both assist substitute drivers and escape the assholes sitting in the back, he’d stared at it without feeling much of anything and then folded into his pocket.
It was all because of the kiss. That stupid and sticky and all-wrong kiss. When her lips brushed his, his stomach backflipped and he felt lightheaded, nauseated. How could she do that? Put her lips near all that horrific carnage? It was revolting, obscene. He couldn’t understand it. It made no sense. And yet he still felt everything as clearly as if it had happened ten seconds before and not five days ago, her flushed anxious eyes, the taste of her peanut-butter-sandwich lunch, warmth, warmth everywhere, over his whole body and over every part of hers that had touched him. It made him want to grab her and hold her tight and never let go and at the same time run, run, run as hard as he could in a direction that didn’t have her in it.
Pompeii just sat there and laughed. It was becoming a game, between him and Pompeii, seeing as it had hung around long enough to be granted a name. Dayton would push, Pompeii would respond with a threatening tingle of pain that sparked across his jaw and made his teeth throb. Dayton knew that popping it was the way out, the only way. The alternative was to just let it fester and swell even more, and eventually there’d be no more Dayton, just Pompeii, a round, two-legged red volcano that had swallowed everything in its path, leaving Dayton hidden inside, trapped, helpless.
And what wouldn’t Gracie say then?
Every year there was a dance marathon, which most of the student population participated in, for reasons that were more selfish than altruistic; the greatest fear was not making the target amount of money for whatever charity, but being left out of an important social event. Like the football games in the fall and the baseball games in the spring and the prom, it was something designed to disrupt lives, wreck relationships and cause endless amounts of heartache and grief. Like its cousins, the dance marathon was like a stone thrown into a lake, and if you weren’t there to watch the ripples arc outward, then there was really no point to showing up at school the following Monday, for everyone else would be speaking a language you knew was English but nonetheless didn’t understand.
Dayton had done his part, mowing lawns and going door-to-door selling candy bars, duties he found humiliating; knowing they “were for a good cause” was the only thing that kept him from knocking over mailboxes on his way from house to house. Besides, who in their right mind would let the Elephant Boy mow their lawn? Weren’t they installed with the proper fear of contagions? Didn’t they feel shame at letting this freak of nature, this cosmic prank, sell them giftwrapped bars of pure crap?
Apparently not, for he had raised everything he was supposed to, and a bit more, which he gave to Gracie to help her meet her quota. There were far less people per square mile out in the sticks, and he was surprised to find that she’d even made half of what she had before she explained that her bicycle had come in handy.
Thirteen hours into the twenty-one-hour marathon and the gymnasium was still packed, students and Thought Police alike, everyone wearing blue T-shirts with the official “Thon!” logo on them, two badly-drawn feet dancing over an uneven dollar symbol. Dayton huddled in a corner with Artie, who was trying to openly leer at Jennifer Godshall but failing miserably, his dismay and hopelessness having long since outpaced his lust. George, true to form, had done the insane thing and not even deigned to participate.
“Aren’t you gonna dance with her?” Artie asked. Gracie was huddled in the corner opposite to his, her back to him, Maggie transmitting the occasional evil eye in sisterly solidarity. They had openly hated each other much less in the last couple of weeks, to the point that a couple of evenings had been phone-call free, Gracie explaining vaguely the next morning that her and Maggie had been talking and she’d forgotten to call.
Dayton shrugged. He shrugged a lot lately when it came to Gracie. When George asked her if he liked her or what, he shrugged. When Artie asked if he had gotten his prom tickets yet, he shrugged. He shrugged outwardly and inwardly, back and forth. There was just nothing much left to say when it came to Gracie, because everything had been said, backwards and forwards, over and over again, the same stories about her family and his family and her friends and his friends and her vacations and his vacations, over and over again until he found himself having dreams about her dreams.
“Dude. Seriously. That thing on your chin is gross,” Artie said, shaking his head, a sour-lemon look on his face. “You need to excavate that.”
“I know.” Fatigue was starting to make Dayton’s head spin and as he heard the deliberate tempo of a Slow Song start up, he started to feel lightheaded, not the good lightheaded but the falling-backwards lightheaded, like he was tumbling blindly towards an end point, out of control.
“I’m gonna ask my girlfriend to dance,” he announced suddenly, and shoved his way through the dancers moving into the dance area, heading towards the far corner. Maggie saw him coming and he saw her duck her head and whisper to Gracie, and did not for a second take the sudden slouch of Gracie’s shoulders to mean anything positive. But he was still tumbling, tumbling, and when he got there he tapped her on the top of her head and said, “Wanna dance, lady?”
Gracie didn’t say a word, merely stood up and followed him onto the floor, grabbed his hands listlessly and stared at her feet.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing. You’re being mean to me,” she muttered.
“No, I’m not!” Why did he feel so bad all of the sudden? Was he being mean to her? He didn’t think so. It was just Pompeii and the road map and no sleep — it was all bunched-up in his head, a big tangled knot.
“Yes, you are. You didn’t call me on Tuesday and you didn’t call me on Wednesday and when I called you on Thursday you acted like you didn’t want to talk to me.”
“Well. I was busy. I had homework.”
One, two, one, two.
“You don’t like me. You never did.”
“That’s not true either.”
“I like you. I’ve always been nice to you. I mean, what’s your problem?” That’s when she looked up, and she saw it, and her eyes widened.
“What is that?” she asked, and snap went a fishing line in his head, and he let go of her hands. Her eyes widened with sudden pain, because she knew, some line had been crossed, the point of no return had been passed, and she stepped forward, looking at him, trying to reach out to him, to apologize, but he just backpedaled even further, shaking his head, saying, “It’s nothing. Not any more,” and he walked off the dance floor, leaving her there alone, and it was only after she registered the disgusting irony of the fact that it was ending in the same place it began that she started crying.
The bathroom was deserted. Music thumped and thrummed outside. Dayton stood in front of the mirror, staring at his own bloodshot eyes, feeling like a truck had hit him, his thoughts whirling, his mouth dry, and worst of all, Pompeii leering from his chin like a homegrown devil.
He raised one hand. Placed his right finger on one side. He raised his other hand. Placed his left finger on the other side. He took a deep breath.
“Out, out, damn spot!” Dayton shrieked.
It was a massacre.
The horrific wood paneling in the dermatologist’s office had become almost soothing. The buttons still flashed mysteriously on the wall. The sliding glass partition had begun to squeal in protest every time the receptionist opened or closed it, the sound making Dayton’s jaw clench and his shoulders climb up towards his ears. But he’d seen so much of the office that he could even spot new patients by the look they gave the waiting room when they walked in. Newcomers gave the entire room the same fearful once-over and, depending on the severity of their own condition, usually relaxed with relief once they realized the office was (usually) not full of Elephant Men, Women and Children. Whereas the old hands, the standbys, the regulars, got their entertainment not just from outdated periodicals but from playing their own guessing game: cystic acne on the back? Acne fulminans on the face, legs and shoulders? Acne conglobata riddling parts unseen? It was a game with no end, and with no definite loser; they were all stuck together; it took one to know one.
Dayton had marched in for his appointment, still bleary from twenty-seven hours of no sleep and nine hours of fitful rest punctuated by horrible, scrambled dream visions of an enormous, two-legged, red-haired pustule that chased him across gymnastic equipment and throughout throngs of sleep-deprived dancers who stabbed at him with hot red needle-fingers, and proclaimed that he was done with acne, that he was sick of it, that the doctor had better come up with a cure for this, and fast, and proceeded to unload a torrent of anguished confession in excruciating detail.
The doctor listened until Dayton ran out of steam, calmly explained that he was only a dermatologist, not a hypnotherapist, gave him another prescription, and told him to come back in two weeks for another checkup.
Dayton, flabbergasted: “What? What do you mean, another prescription?”
“Sorry to be the one to break this to you,” said the doctor, “but you’re stuck with it. Basically, genetically speaking, you’re just wired to break out. Not much you can do. Take the prescriptions and come back in two weeks.”
Outside, the sun was blazing. Springtime was on its way and it was still cold enough to require a jacket, but Dayton didn’t even feel the cold, because he was banging his head against the brick outer wall of the doctor’s office and didn’t feel much of anything at all except whap! whap! whap!
“Hi, Dayton!” a voice sang. Dayton coughed and retched, trying to dislodge his heart from the back of his throat, staring at Sarah Buttons, standing there in her best, most fetching outdoor attire, still looking like she might take to a toe and spin in a glorious circle.
“Going to the dermatologist’s?” she asked, smiling. “Me, too. What a pain in the tail.”
Dayton, ever since walking away from Gracie Moorhead on the dance-marathon floor, had been waiting for this moment. Waiting for the chance to stare at Sarah Buttons oh so meaningfully and give her the opportunity to smile and sing and twirl her way into his arms, without him having to say a word, with her whispering into his ear, “I was waiting! Waiting for this very moment! Thank you, Dayton Abraham, thank you!” And it would be wonderful because they, too, had things in common! They, too, had something to talk about! And so he straightened his back, pushed his chest out, sucked in his breath, and risked all, intoning with all the dramatic basso profundo he could muster:
“I dumped Gracie. Wanna go with me?”
And without even breaking her pace, without even batting an eye, Sarah Buttons smiled hugely and threw back her pretty head and laughed, a big whooping joyous laugh straight from the bottom of the soul, and Dayton’s heart swelled, and it was nearly about to burst when she said gaily, “You’re such a shit, Dayton, the way you treated her, and I hope I never need to speak to you again,” and walked, still laughing, into the dermatologist’s office, the door clicking shut behind her.
So Dayton started laughing, too. He laughed and laughed and when he got home he cried a little and then laughed some more, and by the time he was done laughing he just wanted to go to the bathroom and go to sleep. That was the game plan: first the bathroom, to wage war once again, and then to sleep, because there was still school the next day, and there were still more battles to be lost.