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"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 a mouse.

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 things?

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 "ugly," 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 at Japantown.

"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 room.

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 Chips Ahoy!

"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 an age.

But with Bruce, with Bruce it worked.

* * * * *

... and then that black voice slid into the air, coiled around me like a serpent.

"Cheryl, Cheryl Gawai Chen," he said crisply, as if tasting my name.

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 as enthusiastic.

"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.

Oh, damn.

"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 head back.

"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 dark eyes.

"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, whispered:

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.

"Hi, Bruce."


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 wish."

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 me.

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 - sacrifice?" 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 fleeting commodity."

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?"

Except that.

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 friends.

"Bruce doesn't ever have to find out," I whispered, voice and throat dry.

"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.