He heads home on a winding street. In good weather, when people might sit outside or children might play on front lawns, Sam hears laughter as he passes. He wonders whether people are laughing at him. He never knows. But he assumes the worst. It's cold today, and the streets are empty. No one stares at him until he reaches a busy intersection. Yesterday, at this same intersection, someone in a car rolled down the window and yelled at him: "Freak!"
When he got home, he didn't tell his parents about the taunt. It stung, but he never reacted, never even let on to the man in the car that he'd heard. Sam has learned from his parents to do that. They've heard comments since the day he was born. There are moments when Sam forgets his face. He'll be thinking about motorcycles, about getting his learner's permit to drive, about girls. And then someone says something, or turns away or gapes in horror. Then Sam remembers that no matter what he thinks or feels, people see him only as some kind of monster. Every day, he hears someone mention his face. There are the cruel comments-"weird"-and there are those uncomfortable silences that fall across the restaurant or the movie theater lobby when he appears. He doesn't cry or act embarrassed. He stares straight ahead and goes about his business.
Sam knows he looks odd. The left side of his face is a swollen mass that resembles a pumpkin rotting in the fields after Halloween. He doesn't mind so much the children who stare, naturally curious about a boy who looks different from them. It's older children and adults who make him mad. A girl once followed him through a grocery store, staring at him. He turned on her, made the scariest face he could, and laughed when she ran to her mother. Sometimes there's nothing he can do. A few weeks ago, at home, he heard footsteps on the front porch. From the dining room he saw a neighbor boy and two kids he didn't recognize. They knocked on the front door. Sam's mother went to answer, and the neighbor kid said he was looking for Sam's brother. But Sam watched as all three of the boys peered around his mother, trying to get a glimpse of him, as if he were a specimen in the zoo. Once again, the neighbor boy had brought visitors to the Lightners' to show them the kid with the weird face. This time, through the window, Sam's eyes met the boys' eyes. They turned and walked off the porch. Sam saw them run, laughing, across the street. If only they knew him, knew how funny he was, how much he liked watching sports, and playing on the computer. Sam has learned that adults are often nicer to him than are children his own age.
Sam is happy when he reaches home. Here he can fight with his brother, tease his sister, and be a fourteen-year-old whose parents have to bug him to keep his room clean. The house is wood-framed, with a wide front porch and cream-colored paint. Like thousands of people on Portland's east side, the Lightners are house-rich; real estate prices here have soared in the last decade. But they need new carpets and appliances, and the mail seems to bring only bills. Sam's mother, Debbie, works part-time as a bank teller, for the health insurance.
Sam walks into the dining room, slings off his backpack, and pulls out a binder. He starts his homework, hoping to finish it before going to the open house tonight, and is still working on it when his mother arrives. Now his brother and sister run into the house. Sam closes his books and joins them in the living room. Emily, twelve, and Nathan, nine, drop to the floor and play cards. Sam watches them, but can't get the open house out of his mind. Grant High will be filled with kids, kids like those who had come to the front door.
The family cat, Alice, jumps onto his lap, and Sam strokes the creature with his thin hands. And then, all at once, he is overcome by an urge to be alone. He lifts the cat off his lap, ignoring a plaintive meow, and goes toward the kitchen, where his mother is washing vegetables at the sink. He stops in the doorway and hesitates. Finally he clears his throat, and forms his words carefully:
From Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask by Tom Hallman, Copyright © October 2002, Putnam Pub Group, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
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