Billy Jordan was the first to be infected. He woke up one morning, scratching an itch on his arm. When he turned on the light he was surprised to see, in green letters on his left forearm, the words stole bubblegum.
Immediately, Billy ran to the bathroom and started to scrub.
The letters looked as though they had been inked with a marker—but no amount of soap would remove them. Desperate to remove the embarrassing (and true) words, he tried everything, even nail polish remover. The words remained etched on his arm.
Fifteen minutes later, Billy sat down for cereal, wearing a long-sleeved sweatshirt. His mother raised an eyebrow. “Why are you wearing that? It’s going to be hot today.”
“It’s my lucky sweatshirt,” said Billy. “There’s a math test today.”
His mother narrowed her eyes at him. Billy studied his bowl of cereal.
Later, at school, Mrs. Perkins called him to her desk. “We have some clean tee-shirts in the lost-and-found,” she whispered.
“I’m fine, Mrs. Perkins. I’m just—feeling cold today.” Billy returned to his desk. Outside, the thermometer registered eighty-five degrees.
On Wednesday, Billy wore his lucky sweatshirt again. He was not the only unusually dressed student—Kristy was wearing a turtleneck sweater, and Morgan kept his jacket on all day. Each student resisted attempts to persuade them to remove the stifling clothing, protesting with reddened cheeks that they preferred to stay bundled up.
Mrs. Perkins threw up her hands, defeated.
On Thursday, however, those same hands were pushed into gloves. Despite the spring heat, Mrs. Perkins and half her students looked as if they were preparing for a blizzard—covered in hats pulled over foreheads and ears, and collars turned up at the neck.
By the time the weekend rolled around, everyone in town was looking through closets and drawers for clothing that would cover their secret shame. In the weeks that followed, the unseasonable demand for gloves and hats sent stockboys to the storage rooms of department stores. Sales of concealing makeup soared. Local businesses faltered, as few people ventured out of their homes.
Betty Livesay stared into her mirror and read with difficulty the purple letters marching across her forehead: lied to husband.
George Greene rubbed with his thumb at the orange words on his palm: cheated employer.
Tina MacGyver thought everyone else in town had gone mad, until she went out in a tank top and heard the gasp of the woman behind her in the grocery store. At home, she discovered on her right shoulder the mortifying word unfaithful in brilliant red.
So the town bundled up and hid its humiliation until one day when flyers were slipped into every mailbox.
COME TO THE PARK.
FRIDAY, 3:00 P.M.
As the appointed hour neared, the town’s park filled with people, finding spots under trees, avoiding eye contact.
At 3:00, a man strode among them and climbed onto the boulder that commemorated the town’s founders. He was dressed in white shorts and a sleeveless tank; his feet were bare. He addressed the crowd in a loud voice. “I hear you’ve got a problem, folks, and I’m here to help you out, if you’ll let me. You’ll need to uncover your mark, but if you’ll let me touch it, I guarantee you won’t be sorry. How about it?”
Glances were exchanged, and then Billy Jordan approached the man, pulling his sweatshirt off as he walked. The man hopped off the boulder, winked at Billy, and touched his arm. Stole bubblegum vanished—and appeared on the man’s forearm, in exactly the same place. Billy’s eyes widened. “Thanks, mister!” he said.
One by one the townspeople came to the man, shedding clothing and exposing their humiliations to him. All the marks vanished, and the man was soon covered with colorful handwriting: slapped mother…bullied classmate…had lustful thoughts…gossiped…harbored bitterness…
When the last townsperson had lost his shame, the man stood before them, covered with the marks from each one. “Watch this,” he said, “it’s really cool. You tried to wash them off, right?”
They nodded at him.
“Betcha didn’t try this!” And he took up a bucket of water that no one had noticed before and blew into it. Then, with a dramatic flourish, he poured the water over his own head. Laughing and sputtering, he flung the bucket aside. “I never get tired of that part.” The marks had disappeared.
With a lilt to his step, he walked out of town.
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