By JOANN BACK
"Just sign on the dotted line," he said to me, sliding the
thick sheaf of parchment across the mahogany table to me. I hesitated a
moment, then put my hand on the stack and reached up to take the quill from
him. I paused again, looked at him, at his charming smile, his neatly parted
hair, his dark eyes. Black eyes. Smoldering eyes. Evil.
It didn't matter how many times I swallowed; that sour taste of fear
could not be rinsed away. I closed my eyes momentarily. The quill trembled.
"You know what your type's problem is?" he asked suddenly,
disgusted with my hesitation.
My eyes flicked up from the paper to him. I didn't say anything.
He grinned uglily. "You're greedy. Petty. You'd barter your soul
away for inanities."
We glared at each other over the table, over the parchment. Only the
sounds of the quill wetly biting into the paper as I slashed out my signature
broke the silence. I stood up, pushing out the chair roughly, and tossed
the signed stack at him.
"Done," I said, biting the word.
"Signed and sealed," he purred, smiling like a cat who's caught
Stiffly, I turned and exited, breathing easier now that I was leaving
the warm and stuffy study. It felt like I was walking out of hell. And
then, for the umpteenth time, I wondered, How do I get myself into these
By talking to dark strangers who come up to you while you're sitting
in Golden Gate Park, by listening to his ludicrous proposition, by loving
a friend so deeply, you wanted to believe the unbelievable, and then did.
From there, it was only a matter of signing a contract, of recalling the
reasons of why you were doing what you were...
* * * * *
Bruce is my best friend, has been since we met in the first grade, when
I fell off the monkey bars. He broke my fall. He was really nice about
the whole affair; didn't yell. (Well, not much). I walked him to the nurse's
office, then back to the classroom. I gave him my box of Crayolas to apologize;
he showed me how to eat paste without getting caught. From there on out,
we were like peanut butter and jelly.
We even managed to stick together through to the high school years. That's
when things started getting a little bumpy. Well, not exactly, because
Bruce started having acne in the fifth grade. It just grew progressively
worse as the years went by, seemingly determined not to fade out. When
at 16 my skin returned to its former flawless self, his acne was reaching
its first plateau. At 18, his skin was in ruins, his face constantly blistered
with clusters of pustules. Sometimes they bled, sometimes not.
His dermatologist put him on Accutane, the acne drug of last resort.
I started to worry in earnest about him then, because Accutane is bad medicine.
It's been linked to causing certain types of skin cancer, and had Bruce
been a woman, trying to have a baby would be out of the question for the
next six months. The immediate effects were more visible. Accutane dries
out the entire epidermis - not just the face - and even the eyes.
Bruce had to use Visine a lot of the time. You can't imagine how miserable
I felt the first time he had tried to squirt the moisture into his eyes;
he had to ask me for help. Leaning back, he stretched his eyes open as
wide as they would go, trying not to flinch as I shakily held the bottle
above him, aligning the dropper with his iris.
I missed the first three times, and felt like crap with each blunder.
Bruce learned pretty quickly after that to do his own eyes, but every now
and then, he'd ask me to help. I'm betting he just wanted to make me feel
better, because I really did feel terrible that I couldn't do one small
thing to help him.
For the most, he had been pretty good about his acne, accepting it with
grace. But as it wore on, he lost his patience and let go of the hope that
any day now it was going to clear up. He resigned himself to being
as he put it, and grew sensitive about his face. He didn't start wearing
that really big Giants cap until after my little brother acted like the
inconsiderate jerk that he was. When Bruce bent his head right, that cap
shielded his eyes and a better deal of his face from view. That never would
have happened if I hadn't agreed to Bruce's suggestion of a Saturday outing
"How's sushi sound?" he asked with a bright smile.
"Great. Just give me a minute," I said, going into the living
room to pick up my coat. When I got back, my 9-year-old brother, Jaime,
came padding down the hall in his Forty-Niners slippers, headed for the
living room and the big screen television. He was a late riser (lazy little
punk, is what I liked to call him), and his first impulse Saturday mornings
was to catch what was left of the cartoons.
"Jaime, wait! Come here and say hello to Bruce," I called.
There were certain rules of courtesy you always followed, regardless of
whether lazy little punks were involved or not.
Jaime sulkily padded back out of the living room, remote in hand, and
looked at Bruce. Bruce grinned and gave a little wave. Jaime looked at
him, blinked, looked at me, and then back at Bruce again.
"Why do you have spots on your face?" he blurted.
I don't think I've ever seen a smile fall off a person's face as quickly
as it did from Bruce's. Dismayed, shocked, and not thinking at all, I reached
out and slapped Jaime across the face, sending him squealing into the living
I turned to Bruce. Oh, God. "I'm sorry," I said.
He shrugged, and without another word, went out the door to wait in the
street for me. The rest of the day out, he was quiet, sullen, and didn't
bother making eye contact. He really felt bad. The next Monday at school,
he had the Giants cap on.
He even wore that damn cap to our senior prom. I should know, I was his
date. He tried asking out a girl he liked, but she turned him down, claiming
she already had another commitment. He was convinced it was his face that
scared her off. I went with him, to show him he wasn't the Phantom of the
Opera. The prom photos were pretty funny, though. All you could see was
me standing next to this huge Giants cap perched atop a tux. Even my mother,
a diminutive woman with a heavy Chinese accent, remarked on it.
"Oh, well, he doesn't like his face very much," I said carelessly
around a mouthful of cookie. Calculus went so much better when you had
"Why not, Gawai?"
"Mom, don't call me that," I whined. I hated it when she called
me by my Chinese name.
She sighed. It was an old argument; she knew the game. "Why does
he hide his face, Cheryl?"
I munched down on another cookie before answering. "He thinks he's
ugly 'cause he's got acne."
"Hmm, he should drink more water."
I sighed angrily and threw my pencil down. "Mom, why don't you just
shut up, because if it were that easy, then nobody would have acne."
I admit, I was getting a little defensive about Bruce's face. Maybe more
than he was. All I knew was that I was tired of hearing that sort of advice
flung in his direction when the poor guy was doing everything to cure himself
short of auctioning off his soul to the devil. Everyone should just shut
up, shut up and leave him alone!
She grounded me for two weeks. That's to be expected when you're raised
in a strict Asian family like mine. I sat through her half-hour diatribe
in Chinese about how ill-mannered and ungrateful the American-born generation
was, enduring it silently by studying the cookie crumbs edging the crooked
triangles on my papers. Bruce was worth it, though.
I'm a fool that way; I believe in friendship. I believe in standing by
your buddy, right or wrong, win or lose. Maybe I still believe in fairy
tales and that "happily ever after," too. It's my overly-developed
sense of loyalty; I know. But that bond of friendship was a chain I gladly,
wholeheartedly bound myself with. I don't know.... Maybe I watched too
much television as a kid. Too much of that sappy stuff at too impressionable
But with Bruce, with Bruce it worked.
* * * * *
... and then that black voice slid into the air, coiled around me like
"Cheryl, Cheryl Gawai Chen," he said crisply, as if tasting
His voice sent chills up my spine, stopped me cold at the threshold.
I stood stiffly, back to him. What a bastard he was, unable to get his
fill of taunting. What a fool I was, for letting him get away with it.
"Is it worth it?" he asked, his voice sibilant, sinister.
I put a hand on the door's frame to steady myself - just for a moment
- and then let go and rushed a few angry paces forward.
"Cheryl....?" His voice followed me out into the hall, chilled
my heart. I froze, swallowing, feeling sweat bead on my forehead.
"Cheryl," he said again, "Cheryl Gawai Chen." I heard
the hollow echo of his footsteps resonate in the hall. The hair along my
neck prickled as he came up behind me, breathed on my skin. "You know
what else is your type's problem? Your loyalty." His voice dripped
with contempt as he spat out the word. "Loyalty. It befits a dog,
your loyalty, a dog who blindly, mindlessly, follows her master."
I jerked away, enough to glare at him out of the corner of my eye. Oh,
but if only looks could have killed....
He laughed demonically. It filled and rang in my ears. I think I shall
hear that terrible noise until I die....
* * * * *
Friendship is a gray area, I think. You're never sure of where the lines
are drawn. Where and when do the rules apply? Do you tell the truth, or
do you spare your friend's feelings?
Those thoughts came to me one Wednesday when I sat down in our Asian
Studies class. Bruce had convinced me to take it with him; he insisted
we could learn a little of our cultures, my Chinese and his Japanese. He
was big on retrieving his heritage, always flipping through his text book
to look at more than just the assigned reading. I wish I could say I was
"This one," he said aloud, suddenly.
I glanced around, didn't see anyone he could've been talking to. With
a slight smile painting my lips, I leaned over, whispered conspiratorially
to the Giants cap, "Which one?"
He didn't look up. Instead, he pointed to a picture in our textbook,
and what I saw was the ugliest mask in a group of hefty uglies. It was
a grimacing face of... well, it could have been a dog, or a lizard, or
a monkey, or maybe even a cross of all three. What counted was, was that
it was butt-ugly.
"A Japanese noh. I did my reading last night thank you very much,"
I said proudly.
"Of?" he countered.
"Of an oni - monster," he said after my silence. Then,
"This is the one I would wear."
"Wear?" I echoed, puzzled.
"To hide my face." The Giants cap lifted, I saw Bruce's eyes
peek out from under the bill. "Cheryl, am I ugly?"
Damn gray area. I'm a wimp; I know it because I chose the easy way out.
I jumped to answer, because hesitation would've hurt him and killed me.
You never hurt your friends.
"No, of course not. Don't be such a goose."
The Giants cap wordlessly looked back down at the picture. I wanted to
die. He didn't believe me. He didn't believe me, and I'm not sure who was
more hurt by that.
I didn't say anything more. I just pulled out my book and slapped it
onto the table, trying to focus on the tiny print. Damn lies, damn acne,
damn it all. Damn me, even. I couldn't even help him, couldn't even find
something convincing to tell him. What a worthless friend I was.
"Hey," he said, gently poking me in the shoulder. "You
want to help me with my eyedrops?"
When I looked up, Bruce was speaking to me, not the Giants cap. I managed
a wane smile. "Sure."
"Try to aim for the eye this time, okay?"
"I almost got it right last time," I said, snatching the bottle
from him in mock indignation.
"Of course. My eye and nostril are so close together, it's easy
to miss one and hit the other," he said, grinning as he tilted his
"Ingrate." My smile betrayed my accusation.
I squeezed the bottle, watched the drops fall into those red-rimmed eyes,
and I thought about what friends were willing to do for one another.
* * * * *
... How chilling such laughter, how malicious that joy glinting in his
"Do you like poetry?" he asked lightly.
I said nothing.
"Perhaps you know of Pablo Neruda?"
His smile widened. He leaned close to me, breathed into my ear,
How much does a man live, after all?
Does he live a thousand days, or one only?
For a week, or for several centuries?
How long does a man spend dying?
What does it mean to say "for ever"?
I shuddered, shifted so that he was no longer breathing on me. Nervously,
I swallowed, in fear I closed my eyes as he leaned close to me and hissed
into my ear, "Cheryl, do you know what it means to say 'forever'?"
I jerked away and started running blindly. I was so afraid, so terribly
afraid. Oh God, how did I always get myself into these things....
* * * * *
The Giants cap was bobbing up and down busily when I came into Calculus,
hiding not only Bruce's face, but whatever work he was up to. I plopped
down into the seat next to him and smiled broadly.
It's never a good sign when he greets me in a monosyllable.
"What're you up to?" I asked.
The hat lifted a little, and beneath I saw bright squares of color, and
beside them, paper cranes lining the edge of the desk. "There's a
Japanese legend that says if you can fold a thousand cranes, you get a
Why ask the obvious; I knew what his wish was. Instead, "How many
have you got?"
"Six hundred and sixty-six," the cap said as he gently laid
down a black crane on the "C" of his calculus book. "Thirteen
here, the rest in a shoebox under my bed."
"Hey, not so far to go," I said cheerily.
There was a telltale pause. "My brother said I would probably need
ten thousand to get mine. He said I wasn't asking for a wish, but a miracle."
"How sensitive," I remarked caustically, watching Bruce shape
the head of a red crane with an angry flick of his fingernail.
"You know," the Giants cap began in a low voice, "He made
vomiting noises when he saw my back."
Bruce had shown me his back once, inadvertently, of course. We were taking
the swim test required to graduate from high school and while he saw me
in my swimsuit, and I got an eyeful of his back. Angrily red and crusted
with dead or dying skin, it wasn't a pretty sight. The pustules lumped
together into swollen mounds that were often tipped with dried blood. It
was worse than his face, if that was possible.
"Your brother's a jerk," I said angrily.
"Yeah, I know."
I reached for my book, placed it on the table, and then went for my pencil.
I was trembling so much from anger that when I seized it, it snapped in
half. I stared at the broken pieces for a little while, frustrated. He leaned
over, handed me a fancy mechanical pencil.
"It's all right," he said.
How ridiculous. How utterly ridiculous. He was trying to comfort me,
when it should've been the other way around. A lot of good I was.
I took the pencil and said nothing. I stared ahead at the blackboard,
watching the teacher sketch out chalky waves and fill in sine values. After
five minutes of pointlessness, I turned to Bruce, mouth open to fire out
some searing invective, some curse on his brother, when what I saw stopped
He had his head turned towards the board, so that for the first time
in a while, I could see his face and not that damn cap. A drop of blood
was welling up on his cheek, slowly growing pregnant on a burst pustule.
For a minute, all I could do was stare in horror, and trace the drop's
path down Bruce's cheek with my eyes, see it stop at his jawbone, where
it dangled precariously.
He didn't even feel it. He was watching the teacher plot a sine wave.
I dug frantically through my backpack. There had to be a tissue somewhere,
just goddamn somewhere...
I found it and raised my hand, and that's when Bruce noticed the flurry
of activity from the corner of his eye and turned to me. Something snapped
in him when he saw my half-raised hand, wound in thin tissue, and my eyes
on his cheek.
He violently snatched the tissue out of my hand, grazing my fingers with
his nails. "It's bleeding, isn't it?" he snarled.
I raised my head, but before I could even complete the nod, he had rocketed
out of the chair and through the door, heading for the boy's restroom.
I watched him from my seat for as long as I could, seeing him run down the
hall, before tears blurred my vision. Blinking rapidly, I tried to clear
them. I thought about getting up and following him, but it seemed beyond
me. I just sat there, blinking, feeling my throat tighten.
That was my friend running out there, tissue pressed to his cheek. That
was my friend, in pain, crying with more reason than I had. At that moment,
I felt so utterly helpless, I thought that I would give anything to make
him happy, to steal away his pain. I'd even sell my soul to the devil.
* * * * *
...Oh God, oh God.
I rounded a corner, still running wildly. My hip struck an ashtray stand
and it went flying into a wall, sending up a plume of gray. I hardly noticed.
And then suddenly I slammed to a halt, because he was there, at the doorway,
leaning casually against the jamb. Waiting. For me.
He laughed at me, at my heaving chest and rattling breath, at the way
I stood there, dismayed. He pulled a sheaf of papers from his breast pocket,
creasing them lovingly.
"You didn't answer me, Cheryl," he crooned. "What does
it mean, to say 'forever'?"
I gasped, unable to give an answer, because I had none. Fear knotted
in my stomach, threatened to well up into my throat and spew forth. Oh
God, I was so freaking scared.
In a blink of the eye, he swallowed the distance between us, stood right
in my face, grinning maniacally. "You sold your soul for something
a bottle of Clearasil would have cleared up."
Anger, conceived in frustration, burst forth and gathered into a hard
stone in my chest. Those flames of rage roared, burned out the fear, and
pushed out the searing words from my lips, "You go to hell."
His eyes glittered and fear surged afresh from the pit of my stomach,
quenching my anger. I swallowed and held my ground; there was no running
now. I wasn't going to run anymore.
"What do you think your friend would think of your -
he asked, eyebrow cocked. "What will he think, what will he feel,
to know that you'll burn in hell for an eternity, just so he could have
a few years of transient happiness? Do you really think that he'll remain
satisfied, just because his complexion cleared up? Tomorrow, tomorrow he'll
find a new problem to agonize over; such is the nature of you mortals.
You bartered away the only valuable thing you had in order to buy a foolishly
Again, I was silent, but I didn't take my eyes off of him. I glared back
imperiously, defiantly. There wasn't anything he could say to shake me.
Not a damn thing.
"It would hurt him more, to know you'll suffer eternally, than to
walk around with that face, wouldn't it, Cheryl?"
It would hurt Bruce more if he knew, if he realized I was going to suffer
eternally and pay in blood for his capricious joys. It would hurt him,
just as surely as it would've hurt me to find out he had consigned himself
to certain misery. It would hurt him to know, and you never hurt your
"Bruce doesn't ever have to find out," I whispered, voice and
"No, he doesn't," he conceded with mock empathy. "Unless...
Someone tells him."
And then I started running again, only this time, it wasn't away from
anything. This time, I was running to someone, to my friend before any
more pain befell him....
* * * * *
Friendship is a two-way street. I had forgotten that, but was reminded
now, as Bruce and I stood in the DeYoung Asian Art Museum, Bruce's favorite
Sunday haunt, surrounded by silk screen paintings, raku pottery, and nohs.
He had a hand on my shoulder, and in his other, he had a copy of the
contract. I saw him give it to Bruce, I saw him hand over the sheaf of
parchment just as I came thundering to a halt behind a display of nohs,
and I saw him grin up at me maliciously before he disappeared from sight,
like smoke in the wind. He made sure I saw that, so I would think that I
could've made it, could've beaten the odds. Malice was so insatiable.
I don't think Bruce would have really believed a dark stranger's fantastic
tale about the sale of souls, despite the contract copy he'd been given,
despite my distinct signature, despite even, his face. No, his acne hadn't
miraculously cleared up from the moment the quill had touched the parchment,
but it had gained a healthier sheen. The skin was smoothing itself out,
the angry red pacified and receding; it was healing in a manner even Accutane
couldn't achieve. A smile had broken out across my face when I had been
close enough to see him for the first time, and that was a sight that erased
all the pain. Just as long as Bruce didn't believe, didn't know. Just as
long as he came out of this all right.
But he did believe; I saw that in the worried lines of his healing face,
heard it in the tone of his voice. I think, maybe, he believed more so
because I showed up at such a coincidental moment with my stricken expression.
And, because, some things never have to be spoken between best friends.
Some things, you just know. He knew I was capable of doing anything to
make him happy.
"I'm sorry," I croaked, sorry I had let him down, sorry that
whatever joy he could've had was going to be poisoned by knowing how it
was bought. I was sorry I wasn't a good enough of a friend for him.
"It's going to be all right," he said to me, squeezing my shoulder
encouragingly. "We'll find a way to fix this. It's okay."
He tore off a square from the contract and began to fold. In my palm
my friend placed a ragged-edged crane and counted out loud, "One."
Only nine-thousand, nine-hundred, and ninety-nine to go.