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Beneath the Stain

a novel by

Zita Harrison

INK - Beneath the Stain

A novel by Zita Harrison

Copyright © 2016 by Zita Harrison

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without

written permission from the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, business establishments, events or locales, is coincidental.

Cover and book design by Zita Harrison


“The more one judges, the less one loves.”

- Honoré de Balzac

The Color of Ink

~ 1 ~

A large, dark blue splotch, the color of ink, covered the right side of the baby's face. Like someone had taken one side of a Rorschach test and glued it to his cheek. It sprouted at the hairline on the right side of the forehead, spread over his right cheek and his right nostril, wrapped around the right side of his chin and traveled a few inches down the right side of his neck. His parents stared at him in horror, through a foggy sense of distorted reality, when they first saw him in the delivery room. Could this really be happening? The baby was perfect in every other way; soft reddish fuzz on his head, cute little button nose, all five fingers on each tiny clenched hand, the cutest wrinkly butt…and an ominous cloud of stormy blue on the right half of his face. A cruel joke played by the powers that be. Shell shocked and exhausted after a long labor, all kinds of delirious thoughts went through their heads; they pictured some Zeus-like bearded force up in the sky, humongous, all-encompassing mouth open in thundering laughter that shook the world. That shook their world. Could they give it back and get an exchange? Do an “undo” like they could on the computer? Photoshop it out? In this day of technology, there must be something they could do.

Then his mother, Audrey, put him up to her breast and he latched on. I’m yours, that latch said, I claim what’s mine. She was filled with the timeless, sublime sense of magic and miracle, of something that knew no boundary and could not be defined in words. This was her child. Of course they would keep him. The very thought of doing anything else was a sacrilege. As she saw the life that came from her and fed from her, she felt an honor that she had never before experienced: the humbling privilege of being given a divine responsibility. And she loved him in a way she had never loved anything in her life.

Her husband, Derek, was not quite as star-stricken, more hesitant. He felt resentful. They had so been looking forward to this baby. It wasn’t fair. In most other aspects of life, they had a choice. (A thought he might rethink in the course of life.) Why not this? Being of the gender that is typically disposed more towards reason and logic than emotions and magic, he could not match his wife’s attachment to the child. The birthmark really bothered him. It was hard to look at without cringing, but it was also hard to look at anything else. That damn birthmark screamed for all of one’s attention. So, as he held his son and studied him, he failed to see that he was holding a miniature version of himself. He failed to experience the amazement and wonder of a new parent when they see flashes of themselves in their offspring. Audrey thought that the baby had Derek’s reddish hair, and thin lips, his eyebrows. She even suggested that the tight little frown that the baby had on his face most of the time reminded her of his mom. Derek’s mom would have that frown on her face even when she was smiling. But all Derek saw was the screaming birthmark. In a daze, he wondered if he could give him away. But that was really not a serious option, was it? He remembered hearing once that children chose their parents for a reason. Maybe there was a reason they were chosen by this child.

So they called him “Ink.” It turned out to be a memorable name, one that the artsy people of San Sebastian, California, thought was quaint…unusual. Until they saw him and realized why he had been given that name. Then they were just uncomfortable. It called attention to the source of the name, which they were trying desperately not to look at, as if they were flaunting his disfigurement. But Audrey thought it was brilliant. After all, there was no hiding the birthmark, and since she was a fine artist who did ink work, and Derek was a graphic designer, both creative by nature, would they have ever been satisfied with a name like “Michael” or “Andrew?” The name “Ink” would symbolize their love of art and celebrate for them what others might consider a deformity. The birthmark would be a form of abstract art on their son’s face, cool and artsy. Derek reluctantly gave into his wife’s conviction that “Ink” was the right name for their son. Maybe naming the birthmark would calm the screaming. It didn’t. Not for Derek, and not for the rest of the world either.

In fact, most people were unable to share Audrey’s conviction about the name. Cool and artsy? Maybe if half his face weren’t actually drowning in it. Most people either recoiled in horror or felt unbearable pity for the child. They didn’t know how to see the ink splotch as something beautiful. In the hospital, the nurses had gushed about his little feet and hands and tried hard not to look at his face. “Oh, he’s beautiful!” they had said. “You’re so lucky!” But their eyes had said, “Poor you.” They saw the lifetime of struggle the child would have, and didn’t want to wish that on anyone. Same with family and friends who came excitedly bearing gifts to meet the new little person. They had bought clothes, diapers, jungle gyms, strollers, bouncy chairs, swings, car seats, and looked forward to playing with him, and the baby had to go and be born like that. Hard to look at. And why wasn’t the mother more bothered by it? In fact, the pride Audrey seemed to take in their son’s unfortunate birthmark seemed perverse to them. Didn’t she see that it was a curse? That the world was not mature enough for this, might not ever be mature enough for it? Didn’t she see the life of discrimination, bullying and intolerance that lay ahead for the child?

“You could probably get it removed…there are all kinds of laser surgery out there…” one well wisher tried to suggest. The glare she got in return from Mom told her the kid was stuck with the mark.

Of course, both parents had nagging doubts about the birthmark. When all the hubbub died down and they were by themselves, Derek brought up the possibility of having it removed. Audrey, considering her show of enthusiasm and support for their son’s appearance thus far, was surprisingly open to discussing it. But it was no simple matter. There were so many considerations. First of all, was it even possible to completely remove a mark that covered half a face? Would they do laser treatments or skin grafts or what? Whatever they did, it would require major work and it would not be cheap. No insurance would pay for it, and they were not rich by any means. Derek’s little Graphic Design business sometimes did well and other times didn’t. Audrey had a steady income from a few publishers who hired her to do illustrations on a regular basis, but the pay wasn’t that great. She did her own ink illustrations at home, which she tried to sell, but not very successfully so far. And even if they did manage to somehow obtain the money for the removal, there were still other considerations. How old should Ink be when they do it? Wasn’t the baby way too young to have his face torn apart? What if the plastic surgeon messed up? Ink could possibly be left with scars more hideous than the birthmark. And if they kept it, would the birthmark grow with his face or stay the same size? If it stayed baby size, his face would eventually outgrow it. Maybe he could grow a beard and cover it up. It might not be too bad. They decided not to do anything for the moment. Audrey decided there was a reason her son was born with this stain, and that overcoming this tremendous challenge would definitely make him strong and extraordinary. And life would definitely be challenging for Ink, beginning with school.

~ 2 ~

The portentous birthmark decided to grow with Ink’s face, getting larger as his face got larger, spreading over as much surface as it always had. An ominous cloud over their lives. His father got more and more morose. His mother continued to love her son and be hopeful.

To the children at preschool, he was a curiosity, like a giraffe and its spots. They wanted to know how and where he had gotten that mark, if it was something one could get done at the fair, like face painting or temporary tattooing, whether his mommy and daddy had it too. It might have been a little overwhelming for Ink, except for the fact that they were also at the age when their interest, along with their attention span, was short lived. They went back to whatever they had been playing with and played without judging each other. And, like most children at that age, Ink was good at occupying himself and was content with his own company. He didn’t really care if anybody played with him or not. Upon arrival, he headed straight for the colorful, large print picture books, infinitely more interesting to him than other children. His mother read with him regularly at home, the result of which was that he had a better vocabulary than most other children his age, and loved books. And, since in this golden age of video games, books weren’t the first choice for most children, he didn’t face much competition. Now and then some child would try to grab his book away from him, more for the reaction than anything else, and he learned pretty quickly that if he let go of the book, they lost interest in it, and he could then pick it up again. On the whole, he didn’t have to deal with any kind of negativity towards his birthmark. Except from the teacher. She was Ink’s first taste of the ugly world of intolerance.

Mrs. Penelope Martin could not look at the child. She always looked slightly off to the right or left whenever she had to talk to him. She hugged other children, but not Ink. In addition, her extreme, unyielding Christian beliefs determined that the name his parents had given him was disgraceful and heathen. Artists and their blasphemous attitudes. If she had her way, the whole lot of them would be burned. Their complete freedom from the need to believe in God bewildered and threatened her. What kind of person doesn’t want to be held accountable for his/her actions to some higher being? What kind of person doesn’t need someone to pray to in times of trouble? They would all go straight to hell. And what was wrong with a nice normal Christian name like “Michael?” Or “Andrew?” On top of giving their deformed little troll a senseless name like “Ink,” they had given him a foreign middle name. His middle name was “Anadi,” meaning “eternal” in Hindi, his mother had proudly explained. Ink Anadi Spencer. Mrs. Spencer had thought it had a nice ring to it. Rolled smoothly off the tongue. Mr. Spencer didn’t have much to say about it, or anything else. Mrs. Martin wondered what in God’s name they had been thinking. The child would be permanently confused about his place in the world. Not Christian, not Hindu, not really anything. Unless “Artist” was a valid category to belong to, which it definitely wasn’t.

In her little world built of fear and insecurity, Mrs. Martin spent an irrational amount of time brooding about Ink’s name and all that it implied. He was by no means stupid, and she could tell that he sensed her disdain towards him. In the detached way of children, he watched when she hugged her other students, patted them on the head. Watched the grimace on her face whenever she had to interact with him. He was a good pupil, quiet, attentive. Didn’t bug other children in class like so many did. Shared books he was reading. Except for the birthmark, undoubtedly a mark of the devil, and, of course, the name, Mrs. Martin could find nothing to complain about Ink. She knew, however, that evil manifested in many forms, and was always on the lookout for abnormal signs in both children and adults, anything that would indicate satanic influence. She tried in vain to find something in Ink’s behavior or words that would justify sending him out of her classroom. With the growing trend away from religion these days, she had no choice but to be forever vigilant. Who knew what was hiding out in plain sight?

That trend away from religion was, of course, an intrinsic part of public schools, and like other public schools, Laughlin Elementary favored no one religion above others. The diverse neighborhood they were in demanded more tolerance and open-mindedness than other neighborhoods. Mrs. Martin had to downplay her faith at the interview to get hired.

“While we understand the right of individual teachers to have their own faith…” the principal had begun when he saw the fat cross half buried in the multiple layers of what looked like her neck. There really was no visible neck. Her chin led to layers of flesh and ended in cleavage. The principal wondered how Mrs. Martin’s religion permitted the exhibition of this much flesh. Perhaps it was to enable the cushioned display of the fat cross. “This school has children from all backgrounds,” he had continued, “Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and even families that don’t believe or practice anything.” Mrs. Martin had nodded with a placid smile on her face. “This means,” the principal persisted, disturbed by that smile, “teachers need to contain their own religious beliefs and not discriminate against children from different beliefs or no beliefs.” That smile surely looked like it was hiding something. Or was it? He didn’t want to be paranoid or anything, but he needed reassurance. He owed that much to his community. So he sat looking at her expectantly, forcing her to respond.

“Of course,” she had said. “What kind of monster would do that?” Little did she know herself. In the fashion of most bigots, she was also in denial of that aspect of herself. “Children are only children after all,” she continued. “They don’t know what to believe.”

The principal felt his trusty gut protest. She wouldn’t try to teach those children, “who didn’t know what to believe,” to believe what she did, would she? But his low-income neighborhood school had a high teacher turnaround, and he desperately needed a teacher. She had excellent credentials, albeit from a fundamental Christian school, so he ignored his trusty gut. And the school got saddled with a not-so-closeted bigot who, because of her very nature, had no choice but to believe, when she saw Ink, that the birthmark on his face was the mark of the devil, and his parents were vulgar barbarians for not giving him a good Christian name.

Hence, when Ink joined Mrs. Martin’s class, any sermonizing she had managed to keep contained until then came pouring out like molten lava, and her lessons became infused with what “the Lord” said, or did, or would do, and wouldn’t do. The four-year-old children were too young to really care. They stared at her blankly when she erupted about Jesus, then let it skim over most of their heads and went back to what interested them more…play. Many of them had Christian parents, and they didn’t act like Mrs. Martin. She was just mad. Plus, the story of Jesus was more a fairy tale to them than anything else at this point, akin to the story that Ink told them about how his birthmark came about…another thorn in Mrs. Martin’s holier-than-thou foot.

In the beginning, when other children asked Ink why he had that mark on his face, he said he didn’t know. But they kept asking, and eventually he brought it up to his mom. She had secretly been a little worried about what would happen when her son was old enough to be affected by society. She wanted to tell her son to be strong. To not care what other people thought. That the mark on his face was beautiful and made him special. But looking at the 4-year-old’s face, so sweet on one side and so marred on the other, the words failed. She tried talking to her husband about it, but all he did in response was shrug.

“What did you think was going to happen?” he said.

Furious at the continued lack of support and feeling from her husband, she slept on the floor in Ink’s room that night, one of many nights since he had been born. And as she looked around at his books about dinosaurs, and fictional monsters, she had an idea that she thought might fit the world of children.

“Tell them a story about how it happened,” she told her son. “Tell them a dragon kissed you.” It was brilliant.

When Ink told the next child who asked him about the birthmark that he had been kissed by a dragon, it was as if the sun came out from behind the cloud. It spread across the school, lighting up every child it touched. Did they really believe it? It didn’t matter. What mattered is that, for these children, school days became treks into a fantasy world where there was a boy who had been kissed by a dragon. It became a place that previously existed only in storybooks, but was now a daily part of their lives. They loved it. Parents struggled between having their children believe a lie and having them actually look forward to going to school for a change. It was just a silly story, some said to their offspring. These were the ones who told their four-year-olds that Santa didn’t exist, and that the Tooth Fairy was really Mom. They didn’t understand that their children’s innate belief in magic was something to be cherished and nurtured before the world took it away. They themselves had lost their sense of magic a long time ago, if they had ever had it. But for a while, all the kids in Ink’s class were fascinated by him. Of course, magic, by its very nature fleeting and illusive, is fickle. And so was the children’s fascination with Ink’s story.

Soon everyone got used to having a boy kissed by a dragon in the class, and went about their own business. But no one made him feel bad. No one, that is, except his teacher.

~ 3 ~

One day, approaching Christmas, Mrs. Martin had the children draw pictures of how their families celebrated the holidays. Despite the different races and religions represented in the class, most of the children drew scenes related to Christmas. The holidays were mostly about glitter and gifts after all. Pranav drew a Christmas tree with ornaments too big for it and gigantic gifts underneath it. It took a while to find the tree, but it was there. Julie drew a reindeer with a huge, shiny, red nose, and a sled buried in gifts and lights. Lin drew fifteen angels and blue, magic dust. Ink drew a Buddha and snowmen. Mrs. Martin was outraged. Not a Buddha. Not on this occasion. Any other time she could deal with the blasphemy, but not at Christmas.

“Why did you draw a Buddha?” she demanded, blistering.

“Because my parents are Buddhists,” Ink said.

They weren’t really, but one could see how it might look like that to a child. First of all, his mom meditated cross-legged on the floor regularly, like images of the Buddha he had seen. He didn’t know that her interest was in the process of meditation itself, different forms of it, different approaches to it, rather than Buddhism.

Second, she had a small alabaster statue of the Buddha in repose on her dresser. It was a beautiful piece that had called out to her in a Tibetan store. Unlike the brass and wooden statues, the pure, glowing translucence of this one emanated tranquility. Its simplicity had touched and inspired her. She had to have it.

Third, except for the statue of the Buddha, there was no other religious imagery anywhere in the house. No crosses or statues of Jesus or Mary anywhere. Christmas, his parents had told Ink, was a pagan holiday started in Europe a long time ago.

And fourth, when the end of the year came around, they celebrated winter. His mother put up a few cute snowmen and some white garlands bought at the dollar store around the house. Made snowman cookies. Thus, when he was asked to draw a picture of how his family celebrated the holidays, he drew a Buddha and snowmen. And since there was no word for people who celebrated winter, he said his parents were Buddhists.

Mrs. Martin could have taken the time to ask what the snowmen signified, could have taken the time to remember that children were seldom accurate in their versions of things, and that the views of the parents were rarely the views of a four-year-old child. But the floodgates to wounded religious fervor opened. Pent-up outrage at the boy and his heathen family came rushing out, and she swooped like an avenging warrior on the Buddha. First she ranted about the fact that people should not be celebrating Buddha during Christmas. Then, tears in her eyes, she ranted about all the sacrifices Christ had made for the people. Ink looked a little startled at her vehement description of the blood and gore of the crucifixion, but on the whole, his mind was able to shut it out…he was hungry and wanted his lunch. That was when Mrs. Martin broke into a loud hiss that drew the attention of the nearby students and then spread in a ripple of nudges and whispers over the whole class. “If your parents don’t believe in Christ,” she began, all the wrath of the righteous in her scowling, twisted tomato colored face, her voice rising abruptly to a crescendo, “they will go straight to HELL!” The class froze for a minute. Even self-absorbed children looked over, a little scared. The teaching assistant sat, horrified, unsure of whether to do anything or not.

The slights and the lack of affection Ink could ignore. But the picture of his quirky, beloved mom engulfed in sky-high flames, surrounded by horned demons holding pitchforks, was too much. The thought frightened him. He burst into tears and went running out of the classroom, ignoring Mrs. Martin’s screams for him to get back to class that instant.

And he refused to go back. Held in the safe, soothing arms of the smiling and comforting secretary in the office, he managed to stammer out between tears what Mrs. Martin had said. When his mother came to pick him up, he grabbed onto her for dear life. What would he do without his mother? Bad old Mrs. Martin.

Bad old Mrs. Martin denied everything and said Ink was lying. Other children were called in and consulted. “They’re children for goodness sake!” shrieked Mrs. Martin in protest. “They’re all little liars!” Eyes popping out, cheeks exploding, hair coming undone from the tight little bun she kept it in, she looked like the scared, crazy caricature that she was. But too many of the little liars told the same lie when asked separately, as did the teaching assistant; that the teacher had indeed said Ink’s parents would go to “HELL.” Some of the children shouted out the word “HELL” in their little childish voices to show how she had said it, which was disturbing to say the least. This coupled with the fact that the principal had his own doubts about the woman led to the demise of Mrs. Martin’s stint at Laughlin Elementary School. No one wanted their children to be around crazy people. Needless to say, parents were relieved when they heard she left. And so was Ink.

~ 4 ~

By the time Ink was in upper elementary, everyone had heard about the boy who had been kissed by a dragon. Grown-ups who met Ink for the first time were struck by how attractive he was becoming in left profile. For as startling as the right side of his face was, the left side was delightful. They wondered about the extreme irony of it and why God would do this to the child. Not a teenager yet, his face was unblemished by angst-ridden pimples, and free even of freckles or moles. It was flawless and had the angelic, pinkish golden glow of a child’s skin. His eyes epitomized “dreamy.” They were a brilliant bluish green, fringed by thick dark lashes, a throwback to some unknown ancestor, since both of his parents had brown eyes. His nose was definitely his dad’s, almost Greek in an unwavering straight descent from the forehead. But three quarters of the way down, it gently reversed direction and started curving upwards, adding some humanity to the otherwise god-like nose. However, the left side of his face was not what his peers noticed. And the older the children got, the less magical the dragon kiss became.

The innocent curiosity of toddlers was now morphing into meanness and bullying. Children began to learn about the all too human, timeless and ageless concept of power to be gained by making fun of others. They started perfecting the art of sneering, raising eyebrows, rolling eyes just as they saw their parents and other adults doing in life. No one really wanted to physically hurt Ink, however, until Kyle came on the scene.

Kyle was a bully the way children who come from unloving and bossy parents are bullies. His dad verbally abused him over everything from the way he looked, to the way he held his fork when he ate, like his own dad had done before him. If he had a bad day, he hit his child simply because he was there. If Kyle came home with a bad grade, the dreaded belt came out, even though the dad himself had never had grades to brag about. To avoid the scrutiny of nosy, interfering busybodies, Dad made sure the welts and bruises were in places that would stay hidden by clothes. Always on the butt, he would say, as if that was a redeeming factor. No one outside of the household saw them.

Kyle’s mom, instead of trying to protect her son, stayed sullen and quiet. Putting up with an abusive husband had sent her scurrying into a protective shell. She had become a shadow, a part of the background, and only spoke when absolutely necessary, like when dinner was ready. She had no love to give. She was too busy trying to survive herself. Anything she felt for her son initially when he was born had faded into apathy when her husband made it clear he was not happy about having another mouth to feed, and blamed her for not being more careful with birth control. It takes two, asshole, was the thought that went through her head; where was your birth control???? But the thought never made it to her lips. It would inflame his anger and invite him to take the belt to her instead of the boy. She had very little education, and didn’t know what she would do if she left him. So she stayed, and life became something to be endured while she waited numbly for it to end.

So, of course, Kyle was a bully. He never had a chance to be anything else. He had a little following of boys who thrived on scaring and threatening their peers. A peek into their lives would probably have revealed similarly abusive backgrounds. Their daily acts of terrorism consisted of typical bully behavior: name-calling, tripping, shoving, making faces. When Kyle and his gang sauntered into the lunchroom, hands in pockets, little boys trying to act tough, children knew they might not be eating that day. They all sunk in their seats, trying to avoid his glance, hoping they wouldn’t be the one he chose to pick on. They might be forced to give up their seats for no other reason than that Kyle had decided he wanted to sit there. If they refused to move, or even hesitated, they would get smacked. Of course they might get smacked around for no particular reason anyway. Teachers on lunch duty might or might not notice what was happening. The cafeteria was vast and noisy, and it was impossible to keep track of everything in there.

On the school bus, Kyle would terrorize kids sitting in front of him by pulling their hair and then threatening them if they had a problem with it. Most kids would either cower when he yelled, or get up and move, scared. But if they moved, that played right into his hands. It was the reaction he wanted. The attention, the acknowledgement. So if they got up and moved, Kyle would have no choice but to get up and follow them to continue his reign of terror.

One might wonder what took Kyle so long to focus on Ink. He knew about the boy with the so-called “dragon kiss” on his face. But when he first saw him, he didn’t know what to feel. The birthmark was almost intimidating. It startled, unsettled, and made it impossible to look at anything else. So, when Kyle first saw him, he was content to pick on others and observe Ink from far away. Hmmm, his mind said, what can I do with him? Pulling his hair, as tempting as it was, seemed weak and insubstantial considering the magnitude of that birthmark. Part of him was curious, part jealous. Jealous of Ink’s fame. Something bothered him about Ink also, and he needed to figure out what it was before he came up with a punishment for him. Then he got it. The kid didn’t act like he had any kind of deformity. His demeanor and behavior showed no shame or embarrassment for his appearance. Did Ink think he was special? Kyle didn’t think so. He didn’t act like some rich, spoiled kid who owned the world. He was no teacher’s pet. Kyle had heard what had happened with Mrs. Martin in junior kindergarten (a story that had gotten more and more warped over time as it passed from mouth to mouth). She had told him in front of the whole class that he was ugly. Had left him out of class activities because she didn’t like him. Had made him sit in the corner by himself and face the wall all day because she couldn’t stand to look at him. And then she had told him to go to “HELL.” But somehow Ink survived. Not only was he managing to live with that huge mark on his face, but he also seemed strangely content with life. He didn’t have many friends, but was comfortable hanging out by himself, reading, or getting ahead in homework. That bothered Kyle. He himself, who had no disfigurement, other than the bruises hidden by his clothes, had to go through life feeling angry and unhappy, while Ink, with half his face blue, seemed fine. In addition, Ink was smart and got really good grades in class. That just would not do. He had to show him that the mark on his face made him ugly. He wanted Ink to want to hide from people, cower behind walls, not hang out openly in society and flaunt his mark like it was something to brag about. Kyle wanted Ink to want to hide from him. He wanted that power.

When the drawing appeared on the bathroom wall, there were suspicions about the artist, but no proof. It reeked of Kyle, vindictive and hurtful. It was also a really good drawing, and both students and teachers had seen Kyle draw in class and knew he was good. The image was of a boy who was only half human. The whole other half was a grotesque, dark blue splotch, oozing, menacing, arms and legs twisted and elongated to look like tentacles instead of human body parts. In fact, done in the context of an art class, without any intended personal hurt, it might have earned some acclaim. But on the bathroom wall, it was horrifying, an obvious attack. The eye on the deformed side was drawn bigger and protruded precariously from the face. The teeth on that side were huge yellow buckteeth with gaping holes where some were missing. Over the drawing, was written the word “FREAK.”

The school buzzed. Children, both boys and girls, crowded in the boys’ bathroom to look at the drawing. Chattering clusters in hallways went quiet when either Kyle or Ink walked by. The teacher announced in class that there was a “very inappropriate and mean” drawing on the wall of the boys’ bathroom, reiterated school policies regarding bullying and meanness, and said it was to be ignored. It was drawn with a Sharpie, so it wouldn’t come off easily. The principal was going to have it painted over as soon as the handyman could fit it into his impossibly long to-do list. Until he was able to make it in, they had covered the drawing with a large sheet of paper. If anyone needed to use the bathroom, they would need to be in and out. No loitering. Campus security, consisting of two people who made rounds, as well as teachers of adjacent classrooms, would be keeping an eye on anyone coming and going from the bathroom. Whoever did it, the teacher said, looking straight at Kyle, should be ashamed of himself. Kyle chuckled to himself and put on his most innocent, wide-eyed look. They had no proof it was him. The buzz would most likely die out by the end of the day.

It didn’t. Vigilance stretched between the two campus security men, and teachers, each responsible for the behavior and welfare of 22 to 27 boisterous elementary students, was not enough. The next day brought renewed buzz, but this time it was over something different. The paper that had been taped across the drawing had been torn off, and right below the half human, half splotch, there was an added message on the wall: “STUPID.” Kyle was incensed. Did Ink write that? Would he dare? Instead of crumbling with shame, was he actually fighting back? Maybe a different kid had written the word, one who felt sorry for Ink and wanted to stick up for him. But he had a feeling it was Ink. It felt like him; smug, infuriating, untouchable. Okay. Kyle would do more.

He hid out after school hours. No one at home really kept track of him anyway. His next drawing took the point further. He drew a schoolhouse, and a bunch of mutant kids, deformed to the point of ridiculous, standing in a row in front of it. There were hands coming out of heads, Cyclops eyes, Dumbo ears, and of course, ink splotches. The school was labeled “FREAK SCHOOL.” One of the boys was labeled “INK.” There was a barbed wire fence surrounding the kids. Next to the school was another building, and in front of that one, he drew normal, happy kids, running around, playing. The second school was labeled “NO FREAKS ALLOWED.” The drawing took him fifteen minutes at the end of which he slipped out in the dark and went home unnoticed by anyone at school, or at home.

The following day, the buzz continued over the boys’ bathroom. The new drawing was taped over with a fresh piece of paper, and teachers continued their lectures in class over meanness and bullying. Students were advised to come forward with any knowledge about the perpetrator, but no one had noticed anything. No one would dare snitch on Kyle anyway. Conversations in hallways continued to come to a halt when Kyle and his gang strutted by, added bravado in their stride from the knowledge that everyone knew who was responsible, but no one could prove it.

A couple of days later, the handyman still hadn’t made it in, and new additions to the drawing showed up on the wall. A bunch of report cards with A’s and medals labeled “1st prize” had been hastily sketched over the “FREAK SCHOOL.” The children at the other school wore dunce hats and had report cards with F’s. A new caption said, “STUPID AND BORING!” Again, Kyle was livid. This wasn’t working. The little freak really didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of him. Insult followed injury when he caught his little group of followers laughing at the drawing, pointing at the report cards with F’s on them. They didn’t seem to get it. They didn’t get that the kids with the F’s were THEM, and that Ink was making fun of THEM. It wasn’t just a silly drawing; it was personal. So Kyle explained it to them. “It’s not funny. The kids with the dunce hats are supposed to be us,” he said. They agreed. If the kids with the Fs were supposed to be them, it wasn’t funny at all.

The next day, as Ink was heading home from school, he was pulled into an alley by a bunch of boys with paper bags covering their heads, holes cut out for seeing and breathing. He was held down on the ground while one of them drew on the good side of his face with what smelled strongly like a sharpie. He struggled for a minute, made protesting noises, and then realized that there was no point in any resistance, so lay there until they finished. That took some of the fun out of the task, and Kyle, who was drawing, jammed down hard on Ink’s cheek, bruising him and making him grunt with pain. When Ink staggered out of there after the boys had run off, both sides of his face matched.

Ink’s parents had to give his face repeated scrubbings with isopropyl alcohol to get the dark, permanent color off. This made him feel dizzy and disoriented, and in combination with the soreness from the bruising, he was in no shape to go anywhere; so they kept him home for a few days.

“My poor sweetie,” Audrey kept saying, trying hard not to cry. “Kids can be so horrible! It’s okay, Inkie, everything will be fine.”

“Really?” Ink’s dad said, incensed, frustrated, picturing a whole lifetime of persecution for his son. Again, he said, “Everything will be fine? WHY? Do you think the WORLD is going to change???” Audrey took her baby to his room and shut the door. She did not want him hearing things like that. She wanted him to have hope going forward.

Seeking justice, Ink’s parents met with the principal. Again, teachers had their suspicions, but no one had any proof and no one came forward. Some teachers, finally seeing how dangerous this little squabble was becoming, had made the time to take the matter into their own hands and gone into the boys’ bathroom to paint over the drawings themselves. Until the matter was resolved, lunch hour became detention for the whole school. Children were allowed to take ten minutes to eat their lunches, then had to go sit in various detention rooms and do homework. No playtime. This happened for a few weeks, but still no one came forward. The children’s pent-up energy started manifesting in ways that made the teachers’ already difficult job even more difficult, and playtime was reluctantly re-instated, but with the school CIA in place. Maintenance people pretended to work while actually keeping eyes and ears open for any information about the miscreant who had started all this. Teachers were also required to hang around the grounds to keep an eye on things as students left at the end of the day. Covertly, everyone was asked to keep an eye on Kyle in particular, which forced him to be on his painfully best behavior. So his usual targets found themselves enjoying a rare and much needed reprieve from his bullying. Kyle knew that he had probably gone too far this time, and decided to lay low until things blew over. And nothing definite was uncovered.

The marks and bruises on the good side of Ink’s face eventually faded enough for him to return to school, but his parents decided they didn’t want their son returning to Laughlin Elementary unless the culprit was found and punished. Ink was put in a local charter school with small classes and more individual attention, where the teachers spent some time discussing the virtue of not discriminating against people because of their looks. The whole story of what had happened at Laughlin had made it to the local newspapers, and parents put the fear of God into their children about harassing Ink about his face. As a result, not only did no one make fun of him, but no one wanted to hang out with him at all. He ate alone, read his books, and avoided school functions, and no one tried to color his face. He was not happy that his parents pulled him out of the public school. Leaving was admitting defeat, and he would have rather stayed and fought, and planned his revenge.

It was probably good that they did change schools.

A Whole New Set of Trials

~ 5 ~

High school presented a whole new set of trials. The stigma of his birthmark alone was no longer allowed monopoly over his misery. Now Ink had to join all the other unfortunates besieged by the demons of the dreaded phase of life called “puberty”: the hormone induced haze through which everything was distorted; the erratic, irrational emotions; the blistering, bewildering uncertainty; the crippling awkwardness. Ink was now a teenager. And the adolescent acne plague descended on him without mercy, adding new dimensions of ugly to both sides of his face. The birthmark covering the right side of his face became riddled with little pus-erupting volcanoes, and when he tried to squeeze them out of existence, they turned into swollen mounds of angry blue/black flesh, which developed into bleeding craters. Appropriate symbols of his inner turmoil.

The childhood mantle of carefree complacency that had shielded Ink up to now was viciously ousted by a volatile temper. Consequently, his father, Derek, unable to deal with a screaming teenage son on top of a screaming birthmark, was gone most of the time, sometimes for days. Apparently, his work was taking him out of town these days, which was a good thing because it meant more money. But his absence felt personal, both to Ink and his mom. Ink felt like he should be angry at Derek for not being around, but having learned early on that his father was not comfortable around him, didn’t let himself care much about him. Their relationship was distant. So the only one left to yell at was poor Audrey, the one who steadfastly stuck by her son and loved him fiercely. And Ink found himself yelling at her over the smallest things, thoughtlessly spewing out accusations and blame, often unjustified, deliberately cruel and hurtful. He did not understand where this rage and these horrible words came from, and frequently felt disconnected and estranged when he said them, almost like he was listening to someone else say them. Sometimes, an inner voice tried to step in, and whispered, “Stop. Stop. Stop.” But the voice vanished abruptly, and all he was left with was madness, rage at the universe, and Mom.

His mom’s perpetual reassurances incensed him beyond reason. He felt no gratitude for her unconditional acceptance of him. Of course she accepted him. What choice did she have? She had brought him into the world. Well, the inner voice said, resurfacing, so had Dad, and he was unable to accept him. Mom could be like Dad and just stay away. And maybe she should, he thought angrily, unable to see beyond his own frustrations. It would be more tolerable if she stayed away; he wouldn’t have to deal with her constant, insipid efforts to make him feel like he was like every other kid, that there was nothing wrong with him. Because these reassurances were useless. He was learning from experience that a “freak” like himself had no place in the world. The contempt with which he had dealt with Kyle’s use of that word in middle school he now turned on himself.

“Why didn’t you have me put to sleep???” he yelled at his mom.

“Because we wanted you,” Audrey responded helplessly, horrified that her child could feel this way. Every ingratiating effort she had made to prevent this seemed to have backfired.

“You didn’t want me!! You wanted a beautiful, normal baby! Would you have chosen a half blue-face like me if you had the choice?”

“Yes,” she tried to say firmly even though the question was senseless and obviously required no answer.

But her voice shook for just a second when she said it, and she failed to meet her son’s eyes. Older now, and less absolute in her convictions, Audrey was reluctantly learning that she couldn’t be as stubbornly inflexible as she used to be. The defiance she had shown towards the opinions of society regarding Ink’s birthmark had come easy when he was an indifferent toddler, but now that he was an anguished adolescent in desperate need of friends, that defiance had turned into shaking uncertainty. She wanted him to be happy and well-adjusted. But she didn’t want to spoil him. She wanted him to feel normal. But she knew he was different. Besides, did any teenager ever feel “normal,” whatever that was? So what was she supposed to say to his accusations? She couldn’t possibly tell him the truth, which was that, of course, she would not have chosen that her only child be born with half of his face blue, but that a mother couldn’t not love her own child, even if it was born with two heads. And she wanted the best for him.

The truth would have been more palatable for Ink.

“BULL! You should have had me put to sleep when you saw my face!!” Ink yelled, shocking his mom into silence.

“I love you, honey,” Audrey managed to stammer out, feeling horribly inadequate, and added a “very much” in case it made it any better. It didn’t. He stormed off to his room and slammed the door shut.

“SAVE IT!!” he yelled through the door. It just wasn’t enough. He heard his mother crying, as she had been doing a lot lately, and felt completely worthless. He knew he was making her cry, but he was consumed by his own problems. His rage overpowered any other feeling. His dad should have been there for her. He hated his dad for not being there to help them through this, for leaving his mom alone to deal with it, for adding to Ink’s feelings of worthlessness. Not that it would have made a difference to him had he been around, but maybe it would have helped his mom.

The fact was that Ink was now at the age where the company and assurance of parents were worthless. As was his own company. He needed peer support. He wanted to be a part of something bigger, a part of society. He wanted to hang out with other kids his age, go to dances and parties, learn to flirt with girls. Learn to kiss, make out. He had never wanted to fit in so badly. What were these new feelings? Another form of torture from the universe? Other kids didn’t seem to be going through anything like this. They all seemed on the whole happy with themselves, laughing, chattering in the hallways, having lunch together, making plans for the weekend. But of course, both sides of their faces matched. So they had each other for support while Ink had no one but himself, his awkward, stupid, and ugly self.

~ 6 ~

In the beginning, he wore his silky auburn hair like a curtain over his face. But the blue screamed through the curtain. People still had a hard time looking at him. And kids were mean to him, like only high-schoolers can be, hurling spite at him, laughing and nudging each other as he walked by, getting up and leaving if he sat at their table in the cafeteria. So then he started defiantly tying his hair back in a pony tail, exposing the birthmark with the pubescent blue black mounds and bleeding craters in all their glory, as if to challenge the world. If hiding it was not going to make a difference, why bother? He wasn’t sure what kind of reaction he was hoping for when he did this. People recoiling in fear? Looks of shock and disgust? Curiosity? Well, he got all of these in addition to the comments and nudging and laughing. And in defense, he decided to adopt an air of arrogance. Instead of cowering in shame like a more timid person might, he would shake his head and sneer condescendingly at their reactions. Or glare and growl, “Moron” or “Imbecile” as he walked away. Flip them off. But his reactions fueled their amusement and made them laugh even harder, and hate and anger burgeoned into a massive chip on his shoulder. It reached a point where he reacted with hostility to everything, sabotaging any chance at making friends he might have had.

If he had not been so hostile, would there have been those who might have been his friend despite the birthmark? There was no end of diversity around, after all. There were the Goths, the pink mohawks, the pierced cheeks and lips, the tattoos; the self-proclaimed social rebels who were ugly by choice. He failed to understand why anyone would disfigure him/herself by choice when they could look normal. Ink looked the way he did because he didn’t have a choice. He had nothing in common with these kids.

Then there were the smart ones with their thick glasses and dorky clothes. The “Nerds.” They hung out with other “nerds,” because the “cool” kids laughed at them and rejected them. He had even less in common with them.

Part of him recognized that he was doing the very thing to others which he had had to deal with himself: discriminating, labeling. But he was too caught up in his own misery to care. He was learning that labeling others provided a temporary balm for one’s own insecurities. If he could have chosen a label for himself, there was one he would have given anything for: that of the “regular” kids, blessed with normal looks from normal, bland suburban homes, who didn’t seem to have any problems in life whatsoever.

What he didn’t realize was that handicaps do not have to be physical, and that no one is spared some level of the other kind of handicap, the emotional kind. That beneath the appearance of “regular,” these kids had their own set of demons. Whitney was so terrified of gaining weight that she binged and then threw up. Chen cut himself to relieve the pain of his emotions and hid the scars under long sleeved shirts. Diego would fail school without his ADD meds. Demons that were hidden from plain sight and not blaring on one’s face for the whole world to see and make fun of. So Ink thought he was the only one with real problems. And terrified of being the object of ridicule, or worse, pity, he resorted to belligerence and scorn, which secured him the disgust and exclusion he most feared, and turned him solidly into the “freak” he didn’t want to be.

Any interaction he had with others became limited to the classroom. Reluctant project partners who sometimes asked to work alone halfway through the project because Ink was impossible to work with. Reluctant teachers. And so on. If anyone dared to say “Hi” to him in the hallways, he would either ignore them completely, assuming hidden insults, or growl at them. So for the first time in his life, Ink discovered loneliness. He did not know how to be content with occupying himself anymore, as he had when he was younger, but neither did he know how to do anything else. When he sat by himself in the lunch room, he was ridden with self-consciousness. When he saw people whispering and talking and laughing, he assumed it was about him, and got up and left the cafeteria with his lunch unfinished. When he heard others talking about parties and social events, he scowled and shrugged. When he saw couples in the hallways, locked in the clumsy embrace of adolescent passion, he looked away. But he was parched. Parched for touch, affection and recognition. Acknowledgement of his existence and all that he had to offer as a person.

Feeling socially scorned and excluded, he began to seek out locales where he might be able to go undetected. Restroom stalls. For a while, every day at lunch, he would lock himself in a restroom stall with a favorite book. Or sit and try to imagine himself in the mountains. He and his mom drove to the mountains some weekends and holidays, and he felt a calm there that eluded him anywhere else. A feeling of being removed from everything. He felt a stillness there that throbbed with something indefinable. Something bigger. A vast benevolence. A kindness. Acceptance without judgment. He felt loved there. He wanted to stay there forever. It was hard to invoke this in the school restroom, however. Aside from the obvious problem of the smell, he began to feel that people knew he was in there.

One day, a group of boys came in, laughing, hollering about the weekend. Loud, discordant, breaking voices of adolescents bouncing off the walls. Why were they yelling? They were less than a foot from each other. They were oblivious. Nothing existed outside their little world in the restroom right there and then. He envied them their apparent lack of unease. Their “birds of a feather that flock together” connection. He himself was the “ugly duckling,” the bird that nobody wanted to flock with. What a cliché. Suddenly, he realized that no one was talking. There was silence for a few seconds, and then whispering and low chuckling. Ink found himself sweating in the stall. Did they know he was in there? But how would they? One of them lit up a cigarette and the offending smoke filled the whole bathroom. Ink tried to choke back a gag. Maybe they were whispering because they didn’t want to get caught. But what if they were whispering about him…?

He started picking different restrooms at different times to avoid detection. But the same thing happened, again and again, in every restroom he hid out in. A number of boys coming in, talking, whispering, and not always smoking. It was the whispering. If they thought the stalls were empty, why would they whisper? Ink tried listening to what they were talking about, but his anxiety-riddled mind couldn’t make sense of the words. All he heard was the occasional cackle of laughter, which made him start, and heightened his anxiety. Logic told him they were just trying to avoid being heard by those outside in the hallways, not necessarily someone hiding in the stalls. Maybe they had their own reasons to be paranoid and extra careful. Drugs? But maybe they were laughing and whispering about him, the weirdo who hung out in restrooms. The toilet troll. Maybe they were also following him around, spying on him. Of course that was ridiculous. But was it? Was it any more ridiculous than the thought that someone could jam a permanent marker into his cheek and color it in?

Then one day they stayed in there for a whole agonizing twenty minutes, as if to see how long it would take to force him out. They yelled, cackled, whispered, snorted, farted, smoked. At times he heard the rustle of jeans as if they were bending down to look under the door of the stall. Was he being ridiculous again?

Choking in paranoia that wouldn’t let go, he decided he was done with the restroom stall scene. There had to be somewhere else. Somewhere less humiliating. The library beckoned like a beacon of hope. It was quieter, and there were always other people in there, studying, reading. He wouldn’t feel quite so isolated and mortified. Quite so creepy, like a creature of the dark hiding out in caverns, sinister, distorted. He would be a student like everybody else in there. So that became his place, and soon people knew where to find Ink if they needed to, which they rarely did. Better than finding him lurking in a bathroom stall.

He channeled his frustrations into his studies, maniacally devouring information. At tenth grade, he was already reading college books. In class, he was bored to the point of madness. He felt he was smarter than most of his teachers, and he probably was. His essays intimidated and impressed them. As a result, he was impatient, short, and sometimes outright rude. God help the not-so-experienced teacher who tried to explain something Ink knew more about. He would laugh and sneer at them, yawn, hum and haw. He would challenge them, and even correct them, right in front of the whole class. When he wasn’t being asked to go to the principal’s office for disrespect, he was getting up and walking out himself, making it clear that class was a waste of time. Some of his teachers started out looking for ways to cross the vast ocean of hostility between them and Ink, to somehow connect with him, then gave up. He was unreachable.

At one point, his Economics teacher took him outside the classroom and tried talking to him.

“Ink, you might…hey, you probably do, know more than most of us. But that does not give you the right to treat us with disrespect.” But even as he said it, he avoided looking directly at Ink, at the relentlessly disconcerting birthmark on his face. If he had made the effort to look Ink directly in the eyes, maybe, just maybe, he would have made an impression on him. But the minute he delivered his speech with his eyes looking off to the side, he lost him. Ink glared at him boldly and defiantly, then got up, said, “I’ll take myself to the principal’s office,” and walked off, leaving the poor teacher staring after him, wallowing in his own clumsiness and inefficacy.

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