On Your Mark

Fiction by Natalie Sack

Cracks in drywall, exposing the bricks beneath on the wall.

Mark was the kind of baby even the most sensible mothers would contemplate taking to an agent.  Rosy-skinned and rosy-hearted, he required less maternal fussing than most newborns.  When it was sunny, Mark smiled.  When it was rainy, Mark smiled.  When he was hungry, or sleepy he smiled.  He was lucky enough to have contentment as his defining characteristic.

When he was six months old his mother came to get him after his nap and found him with a thick pink line on his cheek.  She thought it was a sleep wrinkle, though she’d found him on his back, and she took him to the kitchen and rubbed the line with a dishcloth while continuing the argument she’d been having with her husband.  

The line didn’t fade but deepened and darkened as she tried to erase it, and it unsettled her enough for her to concede the present argument by starting a new one.

“This is just what I need.  You laid him on his face when you put him down, didn’t you?”  She pursed her mouth at Mark.  “That was perfect skin.”

Mark’s father wrote ‘Dirty dishes Tuesday’ in the margin of his crossword to remember where they were in their scrum and said, “He must have scratched himself while he was sleeping.” 

Mark’s mother received that as too ridiculous to acknowledge.  “What if someone thinks I did this to him?  They always blame the mother.”

“Kids get cuts and scrapes.  If they don’t then they’re not kids.  They’re just dolls that poop.”

Mark’s mother brought his face close to hers and squinted at the line.  “It’s not a cut.  It looks more like a healed cut.”

“Well there you go then.  It’s already better.”

“How can you make Mommy worry like that?” she cooed, floating Mark out to arm’s length.  And he wiggled like a trout on a hook and smiled at her.

Mark’s mother took him to the doctor to be on record that she had acted promptly and appropriately, should there ever be any question that she herself had caused the blemish, since it seemed she would have to live with it forever.  The doctor pronounced it a normal result of a healed scratch, and remarked several times how extraordinarily efficient her baby’s primary hemostasis must be to heal a cut so quickly.  She had him note in the file that her side of the family had always been swift healers, and insisted once more there had never been a cut.

When they left the doctor’s, a woman stopped them and said,” Oh poor thing!  Such a beautiful boy and then that scar.”  Mark smiled and his mother adopted a look that was a fusion of stoic acceptance and martyred victimhood, as though she were the wounded one.

“I know,” she bent and touched the scar gently.  “What can you do?  You try to be the best mother you can and things still happen.”

At home, Mark’s mother dressed him in a colorful head scarf and a gold earring and snapped a picture for his baby book.  She labeled it Baby’s First Boo-Boo then spent the time until her husband came home researching how to parent a disfigured child.  Mark, playing with a piece of printer paper on the floor, looked up at the funny bridge his father’s legs made as they stepped over him.  

His father pulled the computer’s plug out of the wall and said, “What did you make for dinner?  Reservations?”

Mark’s mother stabbed at the keyboard.  “I needed that site!  It proves Mark doesn’t have a scar.”  She fanned some printed pages in front of him.

“Did you spend all day on this?”

Mark yelped then and they found him with a slash on his calf.

“How good a mother are you now?  Your baby has a four-inch paper cut.  Who gives a baby paper to play with?”  He took off his blazer the way you would if it were on fire and stomped away so he had an excuse to raise his voice.  “Now the kid will have two scars.” 

Mark’s mother followed him to the doorway, raising her own voice.  “It’s not a scar.  It’s a signet!”

She disappeared after him down the hallway and Mark tore his paper into snowy confetti.

In the bedroom her husband wadded his Dockers into a ball and snorted.  “A signet is a swan.”

She was momentarily arrested by that thought because she liked the idea of her baby being a swan, metaphorically speaking, but she was not about to let him devalue all the work she’d done to come up with her own answer.  She held up one finger.  “A signet is—” she paused, trying to retrieve her answer.  Finally, she said, “Damn it!” and left the room, repeating the ‘damn it’ down the whole length of the hall to the living room, where she retrieved her printout and cursed her way back.  Mark laughed.

Her husband had a sweatshirt over his head and she yanked it down so she could read to his face.  “A signet is a stamp used to authenticate an item.  A mark one uses to show authority over a subject.  Also, a trademark defined as a mark adopted by the manufacturer and used to distinguish goods from those manufactured by others.”

“Are you saying you need to brand your kid to pick him out of the crowd at the playground?  Cause that’s just stupid.”

I didn’t brand him,” she poked viciously at herself and then him.  “We are not the manufacturer.  God is the manufacturer.  He’s marked our baby as set apart somehow.  I think we should be prepared for all kinds of things to happen with him.  Magic things maybe.”

They tiptoed back down the hallway and snuck a look at Mark, who had stuck a strip of paper as a Band-Aid on the cut on his calf and was piling the confetti on his own head.

“Yup,” said his dad.  “He’s special all right.”

“Shoosh,” hissed his mother.  “I believe this.  That scar is just like Harry Potter’s lightning bolt.”

“You might as well put bolts in his neck and get him struck by lightning for all the good that little diagnosis will do.”

“You can’t even open your mind a crack to fit in someone else’s opinion.”

Mark’s cut started to bleed through the paper then and she took him to the bathroom to clean it.

When Mark was two, his play date with the neighbor girl ended when she brained him with a Tonka truck after he ate the last goldfish cracker.  Instead of a gash at the injury site, a red stripe puffed on his left hand.  His forehead remained clear and visibly perfect.  

Mark’s mother returned the girl to her home without the packaging she’d come with, the way you would a broken toy to the store.  She held Mark’s injured hand up and waited indignantly for an apology.  The neighbor mother bent to examine the mark and rolled her eyes. 

She said, “That is not a fresh wound,” for it had turned from a gash to a scar in the time it took to walk two houses down.  “My daughter did not do this.”

“Clonk the head,” said the girl.  She peered at Mark’s clear forehead and backed away.  Children know when something is breaking the rules of nature.

As they returned home, Mark’s mother fretted to him that she had lost the only friend she had who served name brand vodka in her martinis and didn’t talk about herself too much.  Mark’s hand injury bloomed with heat then and he slid it inside her cold hand for the rest of the walk.  

By the time he was four, Mark knew the scars came from what other people did.  When his daycare teacher laughed at the picture he drew of an elephant, a tiny red line tattooed itself across his forearm.  And he’d sprouted three jagged lines on his abdomen the time his father stomped away with a suitcase, one for each day Dad was gone.

Mark’s mother could not find a doctor who could name a skin malady causing such scarring.  Most postulated Mark was just an extremely sensitive child, despite his sunny disposition, and advised she be extra careful with him.

“He’s not a Fabergé egg,” she’d retort, though sometimes she used ‘Hummel figurine’ or ‘Lladro’ because they were more esoterically sophisticated.  “Can’t you give him something?”

One doctor did prescribe a cream which didn’t work on Mark, but was quite effective on her worry lines.

The scars continued to appear, and the resulting attention from people caused his mother great stress.  Desperate not to look like the kind of mother who would let her child come to harm, she made sure her nails were always lacquered, and her hair brushed to a sheen.  She kept her lip gloss intact.  She wore glittery jewelry all the time.  She shined so much she reflected everything back towards herself.  No one could mistake such a well-groomed mother as neglectful.

By kindergarten Mark was well and truly striped.  The school asked his mother to accompany him that first day and speak to the whole class about how to treat him.  In front of his peers she explained that Mark was the same as they were under the scars, and she instructed them to just look at the scars as if they weren’t even there.  She had a catch in her voice when she said all children were special, but that Mark was just a little more so.  Mark smiled and applauded with everyone else when she was done.

When he was eight he tried out for the lead in the school version of Beauty and the Beast.  Though not a great singer, he had prepared superbly for the role of Beast by taping on dark eyebrows he cut out of the brown, furry lining of his gloves, and wearing his father’s blue jacket stuffed with newspaper to bulk him up.  He’d tied on one of his mother’s white satin scarves and anchored it with one of her spangled brooches.  The music teacher took him aside privately to say that they were going with someone else for the role, but could they borrow the spot-on costume for the play?

Mark hurried home to tell his mother he would be playing the part of a tea-time castle servant, and she gasped and put her forehead in her hands.  “That’s terrible.”  

“No it’s not.”

“Really?  You were rejected because of the scars Mark!  Why are you so happy?”

Mark changed his smile to one that she would find more sympathetic.  “It’s great they didn’t think I was a good Beast.”

“Oh, Mark.  You have got to learn to understand that not everything is good all the time.”

Mark pressed his hand over the fresh pinch of a scratch on his neck while he got her a cold cloth for her forehead.

In junior high, Mark had no difficulty finding a group to identify with when the Goths launched an overt campaign of staring, then nodding sagely whenever Mark met their eyes.  As a society that had to simulate their darkness with costuming, they admired that his sinister appearance was undeniable.  Mom couldn’t make him wash it off for a more normal appearance at a family reunion or a bris.  After a few days of eyeing him from the corner of the cafeteria they descended on him directly, hovering over his table like a brood of insecure bats.  

They stood without speaking until it became clear that Mark wasn’t unsettled by their appearance, then the head Goth spoke.  

“Astaroth got sent away the minute his birthgivers found him cutting with a Gillette Good News.  How are you not locked away?”

Mark guessed Astaroth was the one with the tartan pants.  He smiled.  “My scars just happen.”

The head bat processed Mark’s response and defined it as a cool, unemotional avoidance of the question that nevertheless answered the question for those smart enough to get it.  “You speak true,” he said.  “And we want to invite you in.  But you have to stop smiling so much.  We don’t do that.”

“I do that,” said Mark.  “But thanks a lot.  You know, for considering me.”

On his eighteenth birthday Mark had one un-scarred patch of skin left, a soft pink circle over his heart.  After cake he told his mother his gift to her was that he was ready to move out on his own, and she could get on with living instead of worrying over him.  She eyed him from his bedroom doorway as he collected the bags he’d already packed.  He told her how happy he was to be able to take care of himself, and that he owed it all to her.

As he kissed her cheek she said, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” and a blister sparked on him like a period at the end of a long sentence.

He got a job as a dishwasher at a diner where a razor of a girl named Cassie played the part of waitress.  She was one of those girls who advertise by their adornments that they favor dark oddities over status quo as a way of assigning themselves into some special bracket.  She spent her break studying Mark unabashedly while he fire-hosed tuna shrapnel and pie goo down the drain.  He let her look.  People usually turned away.

She poked the pinky of one hand through the gauge in her earlobe and pointed her Salem menthol at him with the other hand.

“You’re lucky,” she pronounced, then tilted her chin up to bear his reaction.

“Lucky,” Mark repeated, smiling at her.  It wasn’t a question.  He just liked the possibility of it.

She came closer and studied his lined face.  “You never need to pay for a tattoo.  You’re already art.”

Future cigarette breaks found her using the soft-tipped felt pen she took orders with to survey Mark’s scars.  She’d begin on his palm and push up his sleeve to follow the topography wherever it led.  Later she began tracing out pictures made by the intersecting scars—whimsical shapes like cats with antlers, and thousand-petalled flowers with wings for roots.  His thickened skin desensitized him to the touch of fingers or a fist, but Cassie’s point he felt.

In his apartment Mark would look at the fanciful pictures she’d drawn on him and try to see the art himself, but he was an autostereogram—one of those wavy line prints you stare at until the hidden picture appears—and under his own gaze the prize eluded him.

On their first date they dressed up like Freddy Kruger and Steven Spielberg’s Carrie and went to a horror movie marathon.  On the way out, Mark got so many stares that Cassie pulled out her camera phone and encouraged people to have their picture taken with him.  Mark spent a half hour making crazy eyes and pretending to strangle people, though Cassie had to keep reminding him not to smile in the shots.

Dawn found them at the junkyard—Cassie’s favorite place, because she said she felt it her duty to love things that were broken—on the hood of a Skylark painted camouflage.  They shared hot chestnuts and Red Bull and counted rats.

“Those scars of yours,” Cassie laid back against the windshield, “do they go everywhere?”

“No inch unsullied,” he said.

Then came for Mark one of those moments a person only gets one of, when you can feel time as a presence for good instead of an abstract enemy and you understand cosmic things like what it is to be a star.  One of those moments you know will leave you better off than you were before it.

On the cusp of that instant Cassie said, “Can I see?” 

When Mark had saved a hundred dollars he went to a jewelry store to buy Cassie a gold hoop to wear through her ear gauge.  Instead, he saw her through the window of the donut shop Holes and Joe.  Her face was perfectly haloed by the O in ‘Joe’ painted on the glass while a man licked sugar off her cheek.  Mark’s only thought was that if they had sat two booths to the left she would have been ringed in ‘Holes.’

At work Mark said, “I saw you at the coffee shop with the sugar-licker.”

She laughed.  “No you didn’t.  Who was I with?”

“I didn’t need to see his face,” said Mark.  “I saw yours.”

The moment dragged while Cassie drank in the tension.  Finally, she shrugged.  “It was fun for us, Mark, but I need passion and spectacle and crisis.”  There was not a hint of regret in her voice, though she could have had the good grace to at least appear snakebit.  She poked her pen at him, gently, leaving a single red dot on his chest.  “And you’re so nice.”

Mark closed his eyes and waited for the fresh wound to exist, but there was no pain, no pinch or scratch.  There was no spot left to blemish, yet people can always be wounded.  A body, after all, is just architecture, built strong then gradually eroded by its environment.  Easily reduced to crumbs by a placid shrug of the Earth.

All his scars began to twitch and quiver.  He untied his apron and took it off.  He took off his shirt and watched as the scars began—not to disappear—but to be drawn inside to the only space they had left.  The lesions tingled and boiled then were absorbed, leaving him as the unpainted canvas he had once been.  He appeared pink and new, untouched.  He appeared reborn.  

He left the diner and walked two blocks away from Cassie and hung a left into Ink Positive Tattoo Parlor.

The place was empty except for a woman wearing bowling shirt and reading a Luke Cage comic.  He put some money on the counter and told her he wanted the works.

She pointed her finger on the panel she was reading to mark her place and looked him over.  “Beautiful boy like you?  That perfect skin.  You sure?”

Mark nodded affirmative and smiled at her.  He settled into the chair with a deep sigh.

“Okay,” she said, snapping on latex gloves.  “What do you want?”

Mark turned his face away from her, closed his eyes and said, “Your choice.”

Natalie Sack writes prose from a tiny steel town outside Pittsburgh, PA and finds that the only thing more difficult than writing prose is crafting a bio.

Photo by Oleg Stepanov on Unsplash

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