Charlie slammed his book down on the table in exasperation. "Gimme a break, Mom! I know I'm your only child but that doesn't mean you can arrange every aspect of my life for me!" He repeatedly stabbed his finger toward his face and shouted, "Take a close look! Ugly! THIS! IS! AN! UGLY! FACE! Females are never going to flock around me in hopes of a date. Why don't you just accept that as a fact and stop trying to fix me up with girls who wouldn't be seen dead standing next to me in public?"
He grabbed his homework off the table and left the kitchen heading for his bedroom.
"Charlie, you just stop this crap right now! You are not ugly, Baby," she shouted after him as he stomped up the stairs. But Frances Werther didn't sound convincing. She sighed as she sank down onto the chrome and vinyl dinette chair and buried her face in her hands. What had she done to deserve this? What had Charlie done to deserve this?
Once more resigned to failure, she lifted the receiver on the wall phone and called her friend. "Annie? It's Fran. Look, I'm sorry but Charlie won't be coming to Tracy's party tonight. He says he's not feeling so hot and went to bed early. Yeah, it's too bad but, you know, he wouldn't want to be spreading something around. OK, well, thank Tracy for the invitation anyhow. Bye."
As she stood over the sink peeling potatoes for dinner, Fran had evil thoughts about all the kids who'd teased and tortured Charlie about his looks as he grew up. He was sixteen now and had become a virtual recluse, living his life in books and on his computer. She'd tried all his life to reassure him and had even arranged sessions with a child psychologist they couldn't afford to get her son past his near-pathological reclusiveness, but to no avail.
It's not that he demonstrated any psychotic or sociopathic behavior. He didn't: Neurotic, perhaps. It's just that, to avoid the stares, taunts and barbs of his peers, he gradually grew more and more introverted, spending nearly all his time either in school or in his room. Well, that and his physical fitness stuff. He loved to run in the early mornings and work out with weights in his room in the afternoon. As a result, his six-foot, hundred and seventy pound body was in superb physical condition.
Mr. Barelli, the track coach had seen him running in the streets and doubted there was anyone on the track team who could match his speed and endurance. Charlie would be a natural for cross-country. He'd asked the boy to join the track team more than once but Charlie had no interest in doing that. The coach didn't press the issue because he'd heard the snide, childish remarks and had nothing but sympathy for the kid.
The truth was that Charlie was ugly, at least by most people's standards. Not grotesquely ugly like movie monsters; just enough that it attracted people's attention. It happened because he was the unfortunate bottom infant in a womb carrying twins. It isn't terribly uncommon for the one on the bottom to have the shape of his skull distorted as he rested head-down in the womb and was then the first one pushed through the narrow birth canal. The result was that the right side of his head and face were pushed forward and one eye was slightly lower than the other, causing an obvious lack of facial symmetry. Most of the distortion could have been easily corrected in his first few months of life before the fontanels closed by wearing a corrective piece of headgear but the doctor never bothered to advise his parents of that option. They were, after all, welfare people. Fran was never able to shake a certain amount of guilt over her son's condition.
The other fraternal twin, otherwise perfectly shaped, was born with a congenital heart defect and survived less than two weeks.
Even as he grew and gradually became more conscious and resentful of his defect, had Charlie's parents occupied a higher station in society, his defect might have been surgically corrected. Now that he was in his mid-teens and his stepdad worked for a living, the price had only gone up and they'd have to come up with upwards of a hundred grand for a plastic surgeon to perform the corrective surgery. His stepdad's health insurance plan wouldn't touch it, of course; pre-existing condition and all that.
A casual observer might be surprised that, while Charlie wasn't by any means accepting of his homeliness, he didn't seem to be as traumatized by it as his mother. He'd built his life around living with his defect and really didn't know anything else. His stepfather wasn't outwardly repulsed but he treated his stepson as if he were one of life's little inconveniences, interacting with him only to the extent necessary to appear vaguely parental.
There's always a silver lining somewhere though, thin and ephemeral though it may seem. While Charlie was somewhat below the curve in the looks department, he was way above it in other areas. Standard testing showed him far in advance of his classmates in every single area they could test for, especially the sciences. Add to that all the time in the world to spend on his studies because he had virtually no social life and you got a kid who had never earned anything below an A- since he entered school. Twice he'd been advance a grade, making him two years younger than his classmates, on average. He could probably be called a nerd's nerd. Had he not been such an academic high-flyer, there would have been almost zero chance for him to attend a decent university. As it was, he would graduate high school at the age of sixteen and begin classes at Stanford the next term on a full academic scholarship.
He'd still need to work part time to earn expenses for extracurricular activities, what few he might be involved in. That, too, had been arranged through a friend of a friend of his physics teacher. He was so adept in his computer skills that a telephone interview with the head of a growing communications firm near the university landed him a part-time trial position as a Data Base Manager's assistant. He'd need to arrive in California by August first and work with the company's DBM for three weeks to familiarize himself with their programs but after that, he'd be allowed to do most of his work from his room in the student dorm on a company computer connected to their main server, just checking in with his boss once a week to review his work.