With a Sidelong Glance
Jared had always known he was different. The mask concealing his face—the hushed voices following him wherever he walked, the disgusted pairs of eyes lingering on his figure, the shrieks of children—had made sure of that. But the first time he understood—the first time he really saw the true extent of his isolation—was when he was six years old.
Newly separated from the uncaring bliss of toddlerhood, he was released into the wolves’ den: the public schoolyard. His mother was worried. Worried, but his father assured her that Jared was stronger. He could handle anything. And so, with a gentle, sorrowful, motherly pat on the head, the boy was sent off.
For a moment, the other children didn’t seem to notice him. Their wide eyes were trained on undiscovered playground equipment. Their ears intently focused on the shrill, wonder-filled shrieks of friends. Their lips occupied with the rush of a summer apart. Jared let himself exhale as he stepped through the grass towards the tall, brick building, like the kraken ready to devour him.
“What’s wrong with your face?” a voice rang out through the schoolyard. Jared could feel the tension of every eye turning to him as he dared spin around to face a pig-tailed girl hopping off a swing. Smacking bubble gum in her teeth, the girl stepped toward him, green eyes shimmering cruelly in the morning sun.
Jared self-consciously adjusted the heavy, blue mask on his face. His family’s all-consuming poverty prevented them from purchasing anything more casual-looking. More ordinary. Jared looked at a worm wriggling in the dirt, digging his shoe into the ground. He shrugged.
The girl scanned his hidden face. “Why are you wearing that thing on your face?”
He shrugged once more, still not looking at her. Jared knew that the questions would fade soon enough. The bell would ring and the children would scatter to meet their teachers.
“Are you missing your eyes or something?” she mused. The girl walked around him in a circle, as if scanning him for any more insecurities. “Are you all stitched up like a zombie?”
“That’s Frankenstein,” Jared corrected without thinking anything of it. His father read stories to him every night and the realm of monsters were his greatest fascination. The young boy would ask him to read the same ones over and over again, feeling as though just hearing them landed him on the very cusp of greatness. He grinned just thinking about them. “Zombies are just dead people that come back to life. Frankenstein’s monster is made of lots of people all sewn together like an old jacket.”
No one paid any notice. But the girl did. Her cheeks burned red. She combed through her blonde pigtails before her eyes narrowed, her jaw tightened and she threw her hands down into fists. “Yeah, whatever,” she gnawed angrily at her gum, “At least I don’t have a piece of plastic on my face.”
Jared’s eyes fell back to the ground. He shrugged again, feeling ashamed, though he didn’t understand why.
“What’s under that thing anyway?” she pushed once more, determined. If Jared could have foreseen her schemes, he would have run away. But he was just a boy. Just a child.
He shrugged, adjusting his mask once more.
Without asking, the girl reached forward and jerked at his head. “Hey!” Jared now cried out, stepping back. But the girl was bigger than he was. She moved with his body and although he screamed and thrashed, she tore the mask off.
You wouldn’t think anything peculiar at first. A brown-haired, brown-eyed little boy with freckles dotting his cheeks. A normal kid. But then, he stared up at the girl, face scarlet red, and something happened. The girl’s body was immediately twisted around by some invisible force. She screamed as she was held still, suspended helplessly in mid-air. Jared, eyes full of shock, began to panic. He didn’t know what to do. The others screamed, pointed at him. When he saw this, their bodies were spun around as well, every last one, until all around him was a circle of backs, no face physically capable of seeing his. Shrieks of terror surrounded Jared. Cries for teachers. Parents. Help. Help!
Jared put his mask back on that day and the children returned to the ground. They scowled and spit at him. Most wouldn’t dare go within ten feet of him. His parents decided not to send him to school that year. Maybe when he was a year older. No one tampered with Jared’s mask again for a long time. But no one spoke to him either.
As he grew older, Jared relied more heavily on the realm of fantasy to accompany him. He told himself that beasts were better friends than people anyway. People were only there to taunt him and hide from him and spit at him and his mask. They threw him away, just as they discarded werewolves and Dracula and mummies and the Lochness monster and all those other creatures forced into hiding. They treated him like an insect. He much preferred those fictitious beings.
Although, every once in a while, he would feel a pang of yearning in his gut as he saw a group of friends laughing together or one friend crying on another’s shoulder. Jared once saw a boy holding a girl’s hand and felt his stomach harden into lead before he turned his attention back to Cerberus.
Jared drifted through school ignored and unwanted until, at the age of fifteen, a change in the campus’ aura came about. He debated the presence of a ghost before he realized the reality of the disturbance: the whispers were reigniting. The rumors about him. He heard it in every exhalation around him—saw it in every sidelong glance.
It stuck the whole school in mid-air nine years ago, the kids murmured.
I heard it could kill you with a look.
It’s a recluse.
It’s a freak.
I bet you five bucks it’ll kill itself by the end of the year.
Jared kept his head down and kept walking. There must be a new student. A person whose ears had not yet heard the horrific truth that was Jared. He shuffled to class, trying to keep in mind his mother’s constant advice. They’d like you if they got to know you. The only problem was that they’d shown no interest in “getting to know him” in what was nearly a decade since they’d first been trapped in this school-sized coffin together.
Come lunchtime, he had already fended off several newly-daring kids snickering about his nightmarish existence. His physics teacher had assigned a group project; he made a special arrangement to work alone. The whispers pulsed louder and louder, a constant hum surrounding Jared. He wished he could trade places with the invisible man.
He was scribbling down drawings in his notebook, declining to eat. To eat, he would be forced to remove his mask—a new gray one his father had purchased for him in the years since the schoolyard incident. No one had seen his face since that day. Jared felt he would be a fool to change that now. It would only worsen the situation.
Suddenly, he saw movement over his sketchbook. He dared peek up to see a girl. She had dark eyes shaped like those of a cat, her lashes long and thick. Long legs and hair as dark as raven’s feathers. High cheekbones and a heart-shaped face. Jared had never seen her before. The new student. Standing directly before him with a curious smile on her lips. Could she be smiling … at him?
The girl peered over at his notebook, “What’re you drawing?”
Instinctively, he moved his arms to cover the sketches. “N-nothing,” he stammered, “I’m really just doodling is all.”
She sat down across from him and he felt himself gaping. “Then what’re you doodling?” she teased.
Jared exhaled and showed her his sketches of sphinxes and hydras and dragons and minotaurs. He felt the urge to say something self-deprecating, to downplay his affinity for the beings, but just the thought of such an action seemed like a betrayal. So he remained wordless.
“Wow,” the girl breathed, “These are really good.”
“Really?” Jared couldn’t help but ask, now very aware of the eyes of the cafeteria that were watching.
She nodded. “Yes, really. You could do something with these. Write some stories to go along, publish them or something.” She held out her hand to him. “I’m Luna.”
He stared down at her hand, unsure what to do. He’d seen handshakes before, but wasn’t quite sure how to complete one himself. He ended up taking her hand awkwardly and shaking it for a beat too long. “Jared.”
The girl—Luna—grinned. “Jared and Luna. Now doesn’t that go nicely together? Like peanut butter and jelly.” She babbled on about random topics for the remainder of the lunch period, to which Jared would nod his head and answer from time to time, but he could not escape the question of what she was up to.
When the bell rang and she asked him to walk her to her class, Jared couldn’t take it anymore. “What is it you want with me?” he inquired a little too defensively. “If you think you can get on their side by gathering stories about Weird Jared and all his strange hobbies, well, you’re right, but I’d kindly ask you not to. I mind my own business, and I’d greatly appreciate it if you could do the same with yours. That’s what we do here. Maybe not today, but that’s the ordinary routine.”
Luna frowned. “What? What sides? What are you talking about?”
Jared frowned as well. “What do you mean ‘what sides?’ Haven’t they told you all about me?”
“All about you?” she questions, face as confused as if she had just seen a chimera swallow a man’s heart. “Why would I be interested in that kind of gossip? I’m just trying to make a friend.”
“Friend,” Jared parroted to himself, savoring the word’s taste on his tongue. “I … I would like that. I haven’t had much luck with friends.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
The two heard the warning bell ring. “Oh, darn it.” Luna looked at him. “Want to skip fifth period?”
Before he knew what was happening, Jared agreed, finding himself sitting in the empty computer lab with Luna. She was still finishing up some chips from her lunch, and she offered him some.
“No thanks,” he said quietly, “I don’t take off my mask at school.”
Luna hesitated for a moment before asking, “Why’s that?”
He shrugged, fingers absentmindedly adjusting the device. “I’m sure you’ve heard about it by now.”
“I’ve heard what they’ve said, but not what you’ve said.” Her eyes peered at him thoughtfully, making Jared’s heart flutter—something he’d never felt before. “How should I know what’s the truth?”
“Well, what they say is the truth.” Although Luna couldn’t see his face, he couldn’t bear to meet her gaze. “I’m a freak. My whole life, my facial expression and the feelings tied to it have been able to affect the people around me. I never knew why, but I’ve always had to control it the only way I could. With this stupid thing,” he gestured to his mask.
“That’s a pretty cool superpower.”
“It’s dangerous,” he countered, “And everybody knows it. They cast me out for it. You’ll see. You’ll cast me out, too.”
She combed through her thick, black hair with an uneasy frown. “You shouldn’t judge me before you’ve gotten to know me.”
“Sorry.” Jared fingered the pages of his sketchbook, imagining that a miniature leviathan was slinking out of the paper and coiling around his wrist. “Not used to people.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Jared glanced at Luna’s smooth, dark skin and big, black eyes. Nothing like his monsters. Not at all. She looked back in his direction and he quickly averted his eyes, forgetting for a moment that she didn’t see him. She couldn’t have. Jared instead picked at the rough skin of his thumb, mind wandering to the legend of Bigfoot.
“Can I see?” Luna suddenly asked.
Jared’s jaw dropped. “It’s dangerous. I told you that. Weren’t you listening?”
“It can’t be that bad. Besides, now you’ve piqued my interest.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Then show me so that I know.”
Jared narrowed his eyes at Luna and, as if knowing, she did the same back.
“Come on,” she pouted, “Everybody else at school has already seen it.”
“Yeah, and they all hate me because of it.”
“I don’t hate you though, and I won’t.”
He didn’t answer.
He still didn’t answer.
“I’ll be your best friend.”
“Sure you will.” But inside, his heart ached for it. For her.
Luna took his hand, face serious. Jared’s heart melted. “I promise it’s no big deal,” she begged.
“Okay,” he relented, telling himself it’d be okay. They’d like you if they got to know you. Maybe this time, Jared’s mother would be right.
He slid off the mask slowly, as if afraid that the very act of moving it would send it flying out of his grasp and into another dimension. His face was flushed as he turned to Luna and, immediately, she was spun around and into the air, out of view of his face.
She screamed briefly before catching herself. “It’s fine. It’s fine. I’ve always wondered what it was like to fly.” Luna laughed nervously.
“I’ll just put my mask back on,” Jared mumbled, “This isn’t going to work.”
“No, wait!” Luna stopped him. “Don’t! I’m curious.”
Jared was intrigued by this and, slowly, Luna was returned to the ground. She turned around to face him.
He gaped at her in amazement. “Hey, relax.” She stepped closer and placed a hand on his shoulder. “There’s no reason to be worried. It’s fine. You know, they’d like you if they got to know you.”
“Would they?” his soul ached.
Luna nodded. “They’d like you if they got to know you.”
He exhaled, relieved, and Luna mirrored his action. She smiled at him and his heart began pounding faster. Suddenly, Luna leaned in and kissed him passionately. Feeling warm, Jared kissed her back.
“You’re perfect, Jared,” she murmured after they pulled apart. She kissed him again, hands resting at the nape of his neck. “Absolutely perfect.”
“You think so?”
She looked into his eyes and nodded as his skin began to tingle. Luna kissed him. “I love you,” she whispered.
Jared frowned, “You just met me.”
But his heart so longed for it to be true that she shook her head. “It’s true.” He accepted another kiss. “You’re a good person. You’re sweet. They’d like you if they got to know you.”
They’d like you if they got to know you. They kissed again. The words were a mantra in his head. They’d like you if they got to know you. Jared cupped her face in his hand, feeling finally that this period of torment was over in his life. He felt that maybe, for once in his life, he could be free to feel and to look and to act. Luna kissed him again. They’d like you if they got to know you. His mother’s words. Jared frowned. Then his eyes lit up in devastated understanding. It was happening again. He was controlling Luna.
Jared jerked away and suddenly, Luna was flung against the back wall, her body cracking open a computer screen. She shrieked.
“I’m sorry,” Jared cried out, “I’m sorry!”
“What’s happening?” Luna hollered, “What’s happ—?!” Realization then came into her eyes and she halted mid-sentence. “It’s fine. Don’t panic. We can work this out. It’s fine.”
“No, it’s not,” Jared yelled, tears of rage now in his eyes. “You made me do this. You made me leave my comfort zone. You did this and now … and now …”
Luna suddenly let out a blood-curdling scream as she fell to the floor, body convulsing. Jared’s guilt and shock ended the sudden attack, but the pain that had already been inflicted remained. He returned his mask to his face. Luna was crying and coughing up blood on the ragged carpet as a student burst into the room and gave Jared an accusatory glare before rushing to help Luna. Jared bolted out of the computer lab. Luna called for him, but he kept running. He had already caused enough damage.
Jared thrust himself in the bathroom, throwing down his mask on the floor in disdain. Raw emotion was dribbling down his face in droplets and he was hyperventilating. Of all of the monsters, he had proved to be the worst one.
Slamming his hands on either side of a slippery sink, he turned to the mirror, looking himself harshly in the eye. “Why are you like this?” he growled, “Why did you have to be born like this?!”
Before Jared knew what had happened, his own glare had thrown him onto the dirty, wet tile floor. Pain was overtaking his body, clouding his senses. All the boy could do was shriek as the life left his body.
Some poor grade schooler found him twenty minutes later—the first person to ever look at Jared without having some horrific fate. Jared was beyond resuscitating. He was an empty shell. His cold, pale fingers still clutched at his sketchbook, forefinger stuck in the page with a drawing of Medusa.