Tuesday, February 24, 2009

PRETTY BOY by by Greg Jenkins

His handsome face as relaxed as he could make it, Charlie Floyd pressed his hands together thoughtfully, anxiously. The gesture looked like nothing unusual, though he had done it several times tonight already. In fact, Floyd was trying to reassure himself that when the moment came—as it would very soon—those two hands would possess the violent strength necessary to strangle the life out of a young woman. Just now the young woman he had in mind, a petite redhead named Sharon Deremer, was guiding him silently through her half-darkened, shadow-strewn house on a wooded, countryside hill.

Floyd felt reasonably certain that if his resolve didn’t desert him, his hands could and would carry out their stark orders efficiently.
The plan was simple: First have sex with her; she was willing and so was he. Then kill her. After that, his plan got murky, but the first two steps were so clear and bright that they seemed to shine at him in the pervasive dimness.

“This way,” she whispered, and one of her hands closed delicately on one of his, causing it to unflex.

Though she couldn’t have known it, she had no real need to guide him. He knew his way. Everything about the house was familiar to him. He knew its layout, knew its charms and faults, even knew its furnishings—most of them hadn’t changed. He knew these things because three years before, he had lived here; the house had belonged to him and his wife. Stealing a glimpse into his old office, he recalled how the furniture in there had always been a particular delight to him: the solid wood bookcases, the rolltop desk, the cushioned and leather-trimmed black swivel-chair. . . . Many were the times he’d sat in that chair and just luxuriated in its regal comfort.

His wife in those days had been Sharon Deremer Floyd, the same woman who was leading him through the house. She didn’t recognize him now—hadn’t recognized him all night and didn’t figure to recognize him anytime soon—because Floyd had a new face. Utterly new. This was actually the third face he’d owned recently, and of them, she’d seen only the first couple.

His first face, of course, was the one he’d been born with. It’d been nothing special, nothing to brag about, but he’d had it for the initial three decades of his life and had grown rather accustomed to it. He’d had a creased forehead, bushy eyebrows, a bulbous nose and thick, pouty lips. In his own estimate, and in the estimate of others who’d seen him, his first face had been pretty mediocre—not the sort of face you’d object to vehemently, but not the sort to quicken pulses either. It’d been the face of a grocer, a mechanic, a garbage collector, a high school football coach, though Floyd had held none of these positions.

By contrast, his second face, which had quickened pulses, had gone off the scale entirely. That face hadn’t been much of a face at all, but rather the startling lack of a face, the features blasted into a horrific nothingness. No eyebrows, no ears, no nose, no lips. Not a wisp of hair. The skin was a scarred and unnatural pink—not the pink of everyday flesh, but the dislocated pink of clay or plastic or some other nonhuman substance. Two dull slits peered out of the pink . . . morosely . . . bitterly. It was roundly agreed that the second face had been an awful one. More than anyone, Floyd had disliked it, though everyone who saw it disliked it plenty.

What a resounding improvement was face number three! This was the face of a movie star, or more precisely a male model. Though it tended to twitch slightly around the edges, as if perhaps it wanted to peel itself away from his head and go flapping off like a bat, it was nonetheless a true work of art. Its chiseled magnificence routinely drew the envy of men, and the admiration of women. Obviously Sharon had taken careful note of it, for she had commented more than once tonight on what a great-looking guy he was. So focused was she on his fabulous face that she’d overlooked the qualities that hadn’t changed: his voice, his posture, his mannerisms. But such was Sharon—a lustful, superficial bitch who deserved to die.

She took her hand away from his and held it up, fingers open, to a bedroom door. “In here,” she said.

Not a day went by--and certainly not a night--that Charlie Floyd didn’t recall the accident, relive its horrors in searing, breathless detail. By far, it was the most painful event he’d ever experienced. Not just the physical pain of having his face eaten by fire, but also the pain of the disorientation and loss of identity that followed the accident itself. The pain of beginning a new life--a stunted existence--that for a long while was only marginally better than death. And, too, there was the pain of having his marriage collapse at a time when he could least accept it. This was the blow that had, over many months, pushed his thoughts toward murder.

Floyd had been an investment banker specializing in risk management. He looked into and assessed a variety of issues including increased regulation, capital adequacy standards, and globalization. A number of his pronouncements had proven flatly wrong, and Floyd—along with some others—had begun to wonder just how insightful a risk manager he was. Naturally, the complete destruction of his face rendered these wonderings moot, since no one--except some paid doctors--wanted to deal with a man who looked like a monster. Feeling a subtle but relentless pressure, he eventually resigned his position.

On the day of the accident, he took a risk that failed spectacularly. Late for a meeting, he forced his Lexus sedan out into swift-moving traffic. Within seconds the SUV in front of him inexplicably shrieked to a halt, and Floyd’s car slammed into it. From behind, a Ford F-250 pickup smashed into him, and the three vehicles formed a tight metal sandwich. Orange flames erupted inside the Lexus, whose doors, Floyd discovered, were jammed. With what seemed a willful perversity, the flames attacked his face and head, sparing the rest of him, each blazing lick lashing at him like a knife. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t think—all he could do was flail helplessly, his world gone a glowing, superheated orange. After much longer than he would’ve preferred, someone shattered the driver’s side window and dragged him out.

For two years or more following that day, he knew little but pain, confusion and despair. The only factor that made what was left of his singed life somewhat tolerable was Sharon, who’d frankly surprised him by staying at his side as he slowly climbed back to semi-decent health. Surprised him because she’d never been the most loyal of wives, always with a hungry eye for any man she deemed “hunky.” Yet here she was, sticking with Floyd as he received countless skin grafts--which failed to take. Sticking with him as well through the untold hours of psychological counseling--which also failed to take. Even sticking with him when he finally felt strong enough, and bold enough, to haul his hideous face out into the public arena where he delivered a brave speech to the community about overcoming disability, something, he said, he was trying hard to do.

An innocent young boy in the audience told him sincerely:“You’re gonna give me nightmares tonight.”

When Floyd found himself unable to reply, Sharon answered from beside him that life isn’t always pretty; that people must make the best of every situation no matter how difficult. And that looks mean nothing anyway.

A great pity that she hadn’t meant what she’d said. Soon after his speech and her supportive remarks, Floyd learned that Sharon had been having a torrid affair with not one but two men: her masseuse and her analyst. When he confronted her (not the first time he’d ever inquired into her extracurricular love life), she breezily confirmed his suspicions and added that she’d spent enough time caring for a facial cripple. She wanted her freedom, she said, a chance to live her life more fully.

To Floyd’s amazement, she had no plans to abandon their home; instead, she’d already taken legal steps to have him flung out. Not having the will or the vigor to combat her, he let her have her way. As part of the process, she took from him most of what he’d had: not just money, stocks and the house, but his weights, baseball cards, fishing rods, even his favorite hunting knife, the one with the lacquered pear wood handle. She had no conceivable use for the more personal items, though maybe, he supposed, her new male friends would find them impressive.

“It’s what the lawyers wanted,” she told him.

“It’s what she wanted,” the lawyers apologized to him.

When the doctors eventually approached Floyd with the possibility of a face transplant, they raised the subject cautiously, obliquely. One of them, Dr. Yves Moreau--a fine-looking fellow himself with a worldly accent and an erudite manner--began talking about a novel entitled Face of Another. Written by Japanese author Kobo Abe, it concerns a plastics scientist whose face gets destroyed in an accident; resourcefully, the man constructs himself a whole new face.

Floyd nodded vaguely, and Moreau went on to mention a pair of movies that also concern face transplants: a French cult classic called Les Yeux sans Visage (“Eyes without a Face”—which was also a song by Billy Idol--and the more recent Face/Off, starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. His point was that face transplants had long been a part of the popular imagination. Now, thanks to the latest technology, they were moving from the frothy world of pop culture to the real world: the one haunted by Charlie Floyd.

But the surgery was freighted with dangers, Moreau warned him. A face transplant could result in life-threatening infections. Even worse, it increased the odds that the recipient could contract secondary tumors—cancer. There was also the very real chance that the body, even under the sway of powerful immunosuppressive drugs, would reject the donor face, leaving the patient faceless. (This grim potentiality meant little to Floyd, who considered himself faceless already.)

Perhaps most curiously, Moreau said, the receipt of a new face could cause a sense of alienation from oneself. After all, it’s mainly via the face that a man is physically recognized by the world—and by himself. Give a man a new face, and would he know who he was? Would he like himself? Be at ease with himself? Or would he feel like a stranger in a strange land, lost in his own—or in someone else’s—skin? For Floyd, whose wife had kicked him out, whose friends had distanced themselves from him, and whose dog refused to come near him, the call was an easy one to make.

The procedure took place in Amiens, France and consumed most of a long, arduous day. Working in teams, the surgeons removed what was left of Floyd’s ravaged face and replaced it with another, transferring both the skin and the underlying layer of fat, nerves and blood vessels. The new face had been donated by a youthful swimwear model--name kept confidential--who’d committed suicide. What had caused the man’s depression remained unclear, but it couldn’t have been his appearance.

He’d been Adonis-like.

Even in death, he’d looked glorious; the bottle of pills he’d swallowed had stopped his heart cold, but had done no harm to his face.

After his car accident, when they took off the bandages, Floyd looked at himself in a mirror and wept. This time, he wept again, but now the tears were joyous. The surgery had been successful beyond anyone’s most fevered hopes. His new face was not only a vast improvement over what had been, but it had also turned Floyd into a strikingly different person--at least outwardly. He stared in awe at the sculpted eyebrows, the flawless nose, the radiant smile, the clear, healthy skin. Up top, as a bonus, was a mass of new, thick brown hair. In an instant, he had leaped from repugnant to beautiful; he exuded magnetism and charisma.

Floyd had never been too smooth with women, but this time it was easy. Within minutes of spotting him, Sharon strutted across the bar, sat down next to him and began to flirt. Her long red hair had been artfully disarranged into a sexy tumble. She wore a low-cut blouse and sprayed-on jeans. Having lived with her for years, he knew what she liked (antiques and music, in a dabbling, dilettantish way) and what she didn’t like (investment banking), and he structured his conversation accordingly. Of course, another thing she valued was a handsome face, such as the one he now sported. He smiled his wry, dazzling smile at her and felt pleased that his plan to exact revenge on this crass woman was on track and rolling ahead.
“So what do you do?” he asked her.

“I don’t do a damn thing,” she answered honestly, “except drink.” As if to emphasize her admission, she had another sip of her daiquiri. “But I am good in bed.”

He nodded and smiled at her again. Soon they were in his rented car, headed for her house—or what used to be their--house.

“I take it you’re divorced?” he asked her.

“My husband’s dead,” she answered. “Charlie Floyd. He died in a traffic accident.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” He found it challenging to drive with her hand slowly roaming up and down his thigh.

When they arrived at the house, they had another drink, and then she took him straight to the bedroom where they now lingered in the doorway. An ornamental lamp threw a pale pink decadent light on the room, which was dominated by a four-poster bed. The bed was large and old and made of cast iron. Lacking a canopy, it was somehow intimidating. As in the past, a silken—but surprisingly tough—crimson strap had been attached to each of the four posts.

Sharon was kinky but highly creative and, as she’d indicated, immensely satisfying in bed. But he’d had almost a year to brood on what she’d done to him, and her cruelty rankled him to this moment. He had absolutely determined to strangle her.

Or had he? He could feel his intent weakening as he watched her strip down to her bra and panties. A shapely body, as tight as it’d ever been in spite of her lifestyle. Her behavior, on the other hand, hadn’t improved a whit—had probably fallen to a new depth, though he had no reliable means of measuring. Still, being as close to her as he was now, he’d begun to appreciate her humanity. He noted a small black mole on her shoulder, a faint, crescent-shaped scar on her belly. (Her face, however, was quite good.)

We all have our flaws, he thought, our peccadilloes, and he understood he should let the matter go. He’d been gifted with a triumphant new face and a fresh start in life. Why wallow in the past? Why seek vengeance if he could rise above it?

He kissed her passionately with a dead man’s lips and fingered one of the straps on the bed. Pretending innocence--for he knew her methods as well as anyone could--he asked: “So what do we do with these?”

“You get in the bed,” she said, “and I tie you up.”

“Then what?”

“You leave that to me.” He’d taken off his shirt, and her breath fanned warmly against his chest and throat.

“You’re going to do things to me?” he asked.

“Oh yes.”

He stripped down to the buff, and she ran her green eyes over his nude body, then pushed him gently back onto the bed. He sank down into its linen softness, and for an instant he imagined that the bed meant to swallow him.

“Let’s try something different,” she said, and the edges of his face twitched with anticipation.

As he stared up at the dull blank ceiling, she tied his one wrist and then the other; tied his one ankle and then the other. She tied the knots, as always, tightly, securely and expertly. He knew from past experience roughly what she would do, and how—though it crossed his mind that maybe she’d work in a new wrinkle or two. Maybe she’d surprise him. In any case, he looked forward to enjoying her amatory skills.

And he looked forward as well to leaving this house, leaving it forever, without harming her. He’d arrived at this decision in just the past few minutes, and he felt proud of himself; he felt noble. Perhaps he’d changed outwardly and inwardly both. Sharon was a pathetic, troubled creature, and the wisest path he could follow, he judged, would be to let her stew in her own poisons.

“I’m ready,” he said.

She backed away from the bed and, hands on her curving hips, glared down at him. Her mouth had twisted itself into a sneer.

“You damn good-looking guys,” she said scathingly. “All you damn pretty boys—you think you’re so special.”

The abrupt hostility in her voice unsettled him. Was it part of her game? Or was it something else?

“Looks mean nothing,” she said, her tone unchanged. “It’s taken me a helluva long time to learn that, but believe me, I did learn.”

“What’s the matter?” he said. Instinctively he checked the crimson bonds that held him spread-eagled and found he could move his limbs no more than an inch or two.

She went to an antique chest of drawers, opened it and brought out a knife; it looked like his old hunting knife, with the pear wood handle. If so, it also featured a frightfully sharp four-inch stainless steel blade that was expressly designed for skinning big game. She stood near him, knife in hand.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“Oh, I learned, all right,” she cooed. “I learned the hard way—by trial and error. Lots of trials and lots of errors.” She held up the knife and gazed at it lovingly, turning it deliberately one way and the other. Even in the weak light, it glinted at him, arousing a thrill of genuine fear deep in his entrails.

“Why don’t you put that down?” he said.

“Quiet!” she shouted.

Startled, he held his tongue, and she still held the knife, which she was angling, more or less, at his petrified face.

“You’ve been the ruin of me,” she said, beginning to pace back and forth alongside the bed. “You and your handsome brethren. I’ve always been a sucker for the pretty boys, and you’ve all been worthless. Every one of you.”

“Listen to me—”

“My husband,” she cut him off, “had no looks at all, and then he became a circus freak, but he was a good man, dammit, and I was a shallow bitch who couldn’t see below the surface. I let him go, and for what?” She paused and loomed over him, her eyes ablaze.

“Listen,” he said.

“Quiet!” she shouted, and she sprang onto the bed and flicked his cheek with the point of the knife. Floyd yelped in shock as the blood flew.

“You’re just another pretty boy,” she said, “like all the others. You’ve ruined my life, and I hate you.”

“Listen to me,” he said, his voice desperate, “for Godsake. I used to be your husband. I’m Charlie Floyd. Look at me, Sharon. Please.”

Arching a single eyebrow, she fell silent as a new emotion—curiosity or puzzlement—assumed control of her.

“Look at my cheekbones,” Floyd said. “Look at my facial muscles. Please. I’m Charlie!”

She leaned toward him and studied his bleeding face at close range. He lay still, and she took her time.

“Why, you sick sonuvabitch,” she hissed at last. “You sick depraved sonuvabitch.” She climbed atop him, straddling him. “You’re not one-tenth the man my husband was.” Her voice rose to a shriek: “Pretty boy!”

Squeezing the knife, she carved into his face. Wildly he jerked his head this way and that, but wherever he turned, the blade was there, waiting on him, slashing his face to searing red ribbons, the white sheets going wet and, in patches, as crimson as the restraints that held him in check. The pain burned like a fire—a fire he had felt once before while trapped in a car.

“Listen to me!” he screamed.

But she was done talking for now, content to write out her frustration in capital letters on his face.
--Brought you by RK

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