Stephanie and I were halfway through the miserable cafeteria line when we heard the catcall and following laughter. She started to turn around, and I put a restraining hand on her arm. She looked at me, and I could see the tears in her eyes. I shook my head and glared at her. She took a deep breath and I turned around to face the heckler.
John Bashton. Surprise surprise. Look up “dumb jock” in the dictionary. Yup, that’s his picture, right there. He waved at me. “Hiya, Doc. How’s it goin?” Why was that worthy of another round of laughter from his table?
I turned back around and saw the apples on top of the display case. I shouldn’t have done it. I know I shouldn’t. Before I could exercise my usual better judgment, I grabbed an apple, turned back around, and threw it straight at John’s forehead. Ear. Whatever. He’d already turned to laugh with his comrade-in-jerkdom, Evan Weinberg, and he didn’t see it coming. He roared when it hit and lurched up. A firm hand on his shoulder pushed him back in his seat.
“But--” John protested.
“Enough,” Adam repeated. And it was over. Evan scooted over a seat. Adam sat down and picked up the apple from the table. He nodded to me and took a bite. John’s face was still red, but Adam said something low that made him laugh, and we were forgotten.
Stephanie hissed at me. “Thanks! But you shouldn’t have done that! John’s not going to--”
“John’s not going to do anything to me. Don’t worry about it. Let’s eat.”
We made our way to an empty back table and ate in silence. Outcasts. Truth is, John wasn’t wrong. Stephanie had the worst acne I’d ever seen. The joke is, he didn’t know how right he was, just not about Stephanie.
I’d worn a mask since the summer before starting 9th grade at Riverside High. Not a metaphorical mask, a surgical one. The big kind that fits over your ears and stretches all the way across your face. My mom sent a note for the office the first day of school, explaining I had severe allergies. But it really was to hide the scarring.
June 6th, 2009. A date that will live in infamy. For me, anyway. Mom and Dad took my brother Ben and me out to celebrate the end of school. We went to our favorite pizza joint, the only place in town that served real deep-dish pizza, still in the cast-iron skillets. I could hardly wait for mine, loaded with pepperoni, sausage, and extra cheese. Except when our server reached across the table to put it in front of me, someone bumped her hard from behind. The pizza flipped out of the still-sizzling skillet and plopped against my face, covering my nose and mouth, burning into my skin. And when I opened my mouth to scream, it burned my tongue and throat too. It sounds like a joke, right? Trust me, it’s not. I wasn’t laughing. I couldn’t scream. Or cry. Or hardly breathe.
My Mom flew into action like my own personal superhero. She threw a pitcher of ice water across my face to chill everything down and get some of the mess off without touching me. She pulled me down on the carpet and started laying soaked napkins all over my face and chest, barking orders for someone to call 911, someone to bring more ice water and napkins.
I spent a month in the burn treatment center. What a load of laughs that was. Not so much for me. But for many other patients there. I mean, nothing gives you perspective quite like comparing percentages of burn coverage. I had to stay until my skin was healed enough to be exposed to unfiltered air, though still covered by a mask. I couldn’t have the first plastic surgery until the end of the year, so we planned it for Christmas break. The surgical mask served two purposes: it continued to protect me, and it hid most of the damage.
First day of high school, I was sure people would tease me about the mask. It was kind of weird that no one did. Then a few weeks into school, they put up the memorial for Jim Hudgens, the star quarterback who died of leukemia last year. In the photo collage, some of the pictures showed him in a mask. Oh, jeez, they all thought I was dying.
Note: This story is continued in Pizza Face, part 2
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