Sam has spent the last four days in this February 2000 carefully choosing what to wear. He's discarded one shirt after another, trying for the right combination with the pants hanging in his closet. But it doesn't matter. Sam could show up in the latest fashion, and still, he knows, no girl would swoon over him.
Tonight, he simply wants to blend in, to be like everybody else. He knows that will be impossible.
Suddenly Sam drops his pencil. He fights to breathe. A ragged burst of air escapes from the hole in his throat-the tracheostomy allows air to funnel directly into his lungs, bypassing the swollen tissue that blocks the usual airway. His classmates turn to look at him. Casually, to avoid attracting any more attention, Sam drops his head and coughs, attempting to clear the blockage. Nothing. He snaps his head back and wheezes.
Mr. Hartinger gets up from his desk. Every teacher in the school has been trained to help Sam, but he hates being helped. He waves Mr. Hartinger away, then stands and backs out of the classroom. He uses the weight of his body to close the door, and his violent coughing now echoes through the empty hall. Sam's airway remains blocked, filled with mucus and fluids that flow from a vascular system gone awry, a condition that has puzzled doctors from the moment he was born.
He moves down a set of steps, holding the handrail to keep his balance, then toward the main office, where a portable suction device is kept for him.
"Hi, Sam," the principal's secretary says when he opens the door. "Are you okay?"
Sam forces a nod. Sometimes he loses the struggle with his mouth and tongue to shape words. He finds it easier simply to shake his head.
He rummages through a shelf, looking for the brown grocery bag he has carried from home. From inside he pulls out a blue nylon case the size of a small lunch pail. He tucks it under his arm and steps quickly into the hall, taking care to slip past the nurse's office. If she sees him with the blue case she'll ask questions.
Sam turns left and goes into the boys' bathroom, where he bends to peer under the stalls. When he's sure he's alone, he walks to the sink, unzips the case, and uncoils a tube that looks like a small vacuum cleaner hose. Attached to one end is a thin white nozzle. He guides the nozzle into a piece of plastic at the hole in his throat. He activates the machine. A hum fills the room, and the device clears his airway. Sam sucks in a deep breath and coughs. When he feels he is breathing normally, he removes the nozzle and replaces the tube in the case.
He pauses to study his face in the mirror, to see what others see when they look at him.
A huge mass of flesh balloons from the left side of his face. The main body of tissue, laced with blue veins, swells in a dome from sideburn level to chin. The mass draws his left eye into a slit, warps his mouth into a small inverted half-moon. It looks as though someone had slapped three pounds of wet clay onto his face, where it clings, burying the boy inside.
But his right eye is clear and perfectly formed. His iris is a deep, penetrating brown, and the third of his face surrounding this normal eye gives the impression of a normal teenager. Sam's close-cropped hair is shaped carefully, trimmed neatly behind his delicate right ear. His right cheek glows with the blushing good health that the rest of his face has obscured.
There is the mask.
And there is the boy behind the mask.
The last school bell rings, and students crowd out of classrooms and jam the halls. They gather in front of lockers to talk, they shout and make plans for the afternoon.
Sam slips through them unnoticed. He bangs his locker shut and exits through a side door. A basketball game is under way on a court outside, but Sam doesn't join in. He likes shooting baskets with his friends, but his head makes it hard for him to maintain his balance in a real game, where players are pushed and collide.
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