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imbricate. adjective: Having overlapping edges, as tiles on a roof or scales on a fish.
They called him “Albert the Human Armadillo,” and he was.
He had rows of scales that ran down the course of his chest – a hardening of his skin well-studied and biopsied by doctor after doctor but never explained. They prescribed creams and ointments and oils that left him smelling of fish or burnt embers. Though always well-lubed, his armor remained.
Albert’s scales had grown slowly. He remembered the day they started, and the times they spread.
When he was eight, he worked all day on a card for his mother’s birthday, writing letters to perfection and coloring in her cartoon hair with a light shade of brown. She smiled when he gave it to her. But, two days later he found the card abandoned in a pile of newspapers – the letters smeared by something wet – and he felt a burning sensation in the middle of his chest. His mother apologized as she stood outside his closed bedroom door, saying she couldn’t keep every card. But, still, he had spent all day drawing. When he woke up the next morning, his eyes were swollen and a small, rough patch had formed along the spot on his chest that had burned when he cried.
The patch doubled in size after his father’s trip to Italy. His father promised to bring Albert a statue of the Leaning Tower of Pisa when he came home. Instead, he showed up in the kitchen and hoisted an expensive bottle of wine. Then, his father called Albert a cry-baby and said he’d go back to the airport and buy him a postcard if it meant that much to him.
Albert’s whole chest succumbed to scales overnight after Ruby, his first real girlfriend, dragged him to the drive-in restaurant and then told him – over a chocolate malt – that she couldn’t go out with him any more. She said that the spot on his chest was getting bigger, she was sure, and it was starting to freak her out. As Albert turned and stared at the steering wheel, she climbed out of his dad’s station wagon and ran to the other side of the drive-in. She jumped into Roger Simon’s red Mustang, and Roger drove her away with a screech and a squeal.
At the high school prom, Albert approached Roger and took a swing at him. He missed, but Roger didn’t. Roger hit Albert square in the chest. Only, it didn’t hurt at all. In fact, the punch barely knocked him back. That’s when they started calling him Albert, the Human Armadillo.
And, that’s when Albert stopped treating his condition. He settled into his armor that stiffened his posture. Sometimes he even stood in front of the mirror and hit his knuckles against it, with pride.
Later, Albert’s hardened chest and nickname brought him fame at the Freak Show, and introduced him to a circle of friends who – like himself – knew how to capitalize on their anomalies.
The first year in the Freak Show was difficult. But, like Victor the Elephant Man told him, Albert got used to the stares and shocked expressions — immune to them, was more like it.
Then, on a hot Saturday in July, a young woman approached the window of Albert’s booth and caught him off guard.
She didn’t stare at his bare, scaly chest like the rest of the crowd. She scanned the space around him. He watched her study his room, watched her chest rise and then fall. He began to sweat. He felt self conscious sitting in his chair with its worn upholstery, next to the table that was chipped and leaning. Then, he remembered the peeling wallpaper.
Why hadn’t the Freak Show manager fixed the walls after Mary the Bearded Woman died? Albert appreciated his promotion to her room, which was a step up from his stall filled with saw dust and a rock for resting. But, as Albert slid his bare feet back, under the chair, and dragged with them a layer of dirt and grime, he wished he had asked for paint. Or, even a broom.
The faces in the crowd hung like masks in the window, their expressions frozen in shock or laughter. The woman, though, she raised her brown eyes and looked directly into his.
Then, she waved.
His embarrassment passed and his heart raced.
Her expression turned mean all of a sudden. But, it was the fault of the young man next to her, who grabbed her and tried to kiss her. She shoved him off with a jab of her elbow and called him a name. A jerk, Albert thought, as he stood up and scowled in the direction of the young man. She grinned and signaled for Albert not to worry. As she pushed her auburn hair behind her ears, Albert smiled in return and softened his stance.
The crowd began to leave, and he knew she had to follow.
At the door of the tent, a curtain really, she stopped and looked back at him, then she raised her hand one more time.
Through the opening of the curtain, the sunlight surrounded her silhouette. One single ray shot from the tips of her fingers, across the galley, and through the window of his booth. It struck him right in the middle of his breastbone.
Like a bullet, it broke through his hard scales and burned a crooked line all the way up until it reached his mouth.
He gasped, and he jumped towards the window.
With both hands on the glass, he begged her with his eyes not to leave.