FYI: I am editing this story with help from my creative writing professor and the current version is quite different from this one. I will post the final version here when it is done. Still, your feedback is appreciated!
The medical assistant turned on a bright headlight on his forehead and shone into my eyes tutting, This just won’t do. He was holding the sides of my head in between his hands, close enough for me to wonder whether this was considered appropriate- close to the point I could tell he had just eaten. The light was so bright that for a moment I was sure he had no eyes – just a face made up of a boxy nose and mouth full of coffee-stained teeth.
I came in for a checkup after passing out not once but twice while attempting to have a bowel movement. The first time, I came to in the pink tiled bathroom of my hotel room. I had been calling it my temporary home for six months but had not searched for an apartment since coming here. I guess I did not intend on staying, and getting an apartment would mean I really lived here. “Here” was a slow, pokey community walled with trees, somewhere between there and nowhere. A place that I seemed to materialize into with no recollection where from, but with a faint idea that a time before here existed, and a sense that coming here was my own doing. Anyway, the hotel was modest and cheap and I liked to think the owner appreciated some long term business. Plus it was nice being one of few customers at a buffet of continental foods mostly for myself. When I woke up on the bathroom floor the side of my face was wet from a tiny lake of drool that had grown from me to the sink, where my cat laid on his side doing little to help except licking himself thoroughly. Sitting up I thought I must have been tired from all the buffet food, chalked it up to one of many weird things that had happened to me recently, and went to sleep in the twin bed closest to the bathroom feeling bloated and exhausted.
The second time I passed out on the toilet was at work. It was my birthday and we were an office of people who celebrated birthdays even if the person whose birthday it was did not want to. There was always an impressive spread of snacks and sweet drinks. Since I had not brought my own lunch, I had no choice but to say yes serving after serving until my belly started to make sounds like a dog fight. I excused myself, going to a restroom three floors up to ensure I got some privacy before anyone started wondering where I had gone. Our office was set up like a shantytown of small nooks that I navigated my way through mostly unnoticed. Shelley, the middle aged woman whose cubbie was just next to mine, told me to hurry back since they were waiting to sing Happy Birthday to me. Shelley and I had become somewhat friends and she held a homemade birthday cake lathered with frosting in her fat hands. I seldom ate cake but felt the pressure to appreciate her gesture. During walks through our small office I heard hushed chatter that her husband had recently been crushed to death by some kind of heavy machinery while at work. So, when Shelley crept over to my side of the desk to complain about another improperly filed folder I could not bring myself to shoo her away – and so a relationship spawned. Most times she was pretty useless, but when she was around I felt less lonely and the constant shade of dark that lingered over me would lift slightly. Shelley had only put four candles on the cake because she was a firm believer that a lady never reveals her age. “I believe in that more than I believe in Jesus.” she’d said when we met. That day she wore steel blue jeans and an ultramarine suit jacket with a matching hat over skimpy pigtails that had started to thin. Whenever anyone asked how old I was turning, I parroted Shelley’s words because I wanted to be a lady too. But whatever feigned attempt I made at being a lady was lost when my colleagues found me in the restroom, unconscious, slumped around the toilet bowl, bare assed with my pinned skirt around my knees and a cone-shaped party hat on my head. I was taken to an emergency room. Shelley waited with me, sighing after a while, “I don’t mean to sound selfish but it took me six hours to make that cake.”
The medical assistant who finally called my name introduced himself as Mr Zoon, a man so small and hunched his chest caved in and I wondered whether there was anyone else around that might help me instead. In the middle of the crowded emergency room he took no care in lowering his voice when he shined a headlight into my eyes and bulleted through questions in a coarse, guttural accent.
“Do you eat red meat, miss?”
“Lots of stress or no?”
“What’s your relationship like with your mother?”
“When was the last time you had sexual relations?”
I told Shelley she could leave, then asked Mr Zoon what any of this had to do with why I was here. He labored to lower his headlight, finally showing a set of cavernous milky eyes, then said I couldn’t expect to get better if I kept secrets from medical staff.
“Yes. Yes. Nonexistent… A few months. Maybe a year.”
I was shocked to realize that was the honest to god truth. The closest I had come to sleeping with a man recently was with Steve, a homeless drunkard I did not know was homeless or a drunk until he told me to meet him at his home on the corner of Santone and Beverly, and when I showed up he was blind drunk in the middle of the afternoon, splayed out on the cement with no memory of our date. Our relationship was short lived but there were times he would come over to my hotel room smelling like rancid garbage. The few times he pressed his chapped lips on mine I noticed a perpetual flavor of death lingering on his tongue, but loneliness has a way of making you do some crazy things, and at least he was honest. I wondered what Steve was up to now. Mr Zoon scribbled on a clipboard before taking me to a room for an x ray, then pulling me into the doctor’s office where a gaunt young looking woman with wild hair sat behind an L shaped desk. She looked scared, excited, and angry all at the same time. Around the desk were two sets of chairs, two dragon-aged computers that whirred on their own, and two large filing cabinets. I stood because I was not sure which chair I was supposed to sit in.
“Dr. Alison Rye,” the woman said, not guiding me to have a seat. “Quite a pickle you’re in here.”
She sucked air through her teeth, “We have a few cases like this every so often. Are you new to town?”
“I’ve been here around six months now.”
“It might sound odd, but I don’t remember.”
“Hm. It’s normal to have some gaps in your memory when you first get here, takes some getting used to the feeling of mud on your brain.” The doctor took a swig of something in her mug, “It usually wouldn’t last this long, but one thing that could be prolonging it is depression. You know, mundanity of this place. The repetitive activities, the food, the air, the lack of options for something to do, the people – it’s all very depressing.” Whatever was in the mug spilled as she moved her arms in grand gestures, adding a pattern to the lumpy jogging suit she wore under her doctor’s coat. She dabbed at the spot which worsened the stain.
“How often do people come here?” I asked.
“You’re the first in ages.”
I wanted to say I couldn’t blame people for not coming here. This was a town where cows outnumbered people and I felt duped for not knowing so before. I leaned on the wall beside the door wondering whether any of this had to do with my ending up in this place, and when I could sit down.
“Do you ever feel a darkness come over you unexpectedly?” Dr. Rye asked.
“Oh yes, since I can remember. When that happens I can stay holed up in my room for weeks at a time without coming out once. I’ve never been able to keep a job for too long.”
“Doesn’t it get hard to live, looking for work all the time?”
“Not really. I’m alone in a cheap place where breakfast is included, and the owner and I have a special arrangement where I clean my own sheets, provide my own luxuries, and he doesn’t bat an eye when I take a few extra plates up to my room for lunch and dinner.”
“Uh huh.” Dr. Rye seemed to be writing down everything I said. I wondered whether I should choose my words more carefully.
“What usually helps with this problem?” I asked.
“Most cases would have worked themselves out by now but you’re past that point. It’s important you not let that darkness take over too long, unless you want it to manifest itself physically – which I can assure you, you don’t. You have an obstruction the size of Kentucky on your large intestine, and it needs to come out.”
I had spent enough time with doctors to know lumps and obstructions were a horrible, scary thing.
“Your bowel needs to be resectioned to remove the lump that’s formed. I can do it in a few days if you want.”
I looked at her for a moment gauging if she was serious. Her face was as stone cold as a statue.
“I think I need a second opinion.” The words came out like a husky wheeze sounding nothing like me.
“I’ve helped people like you whose bodies can’t tell heads or tails whether it’s time to shit or sleep, and I’m the only doctor in town.”
“I’ll sleep on it then.”
“That’s your right.” Dr. Rye shuffled her papers. “Just know you have little time to waste with this issue before it gets out of hand. That feeling you’ve been having will rot you from the insides if you’re not careful.” She slid the sheets across her desk, clearing a path of mahogany wood where a fine layer of dust had been. “In any case, look over these papers and bring them back signed when it becomes too much.”
I blinked at her wondering what she had meant, and for a moment I was sure she had no eyes, just blackened hollows where they had been plucked from her face.
When I got back to the hotel room Shelley was bundled in a ball on the rug, snoring loudly. She didn’t wake up when I fiddled with my keys, and I thought about leaving her there on the floor until she woke up on her own thinking I’d stayed in the hospital. Instead, I nudged her awake with my shoe and invited her in for some tea.
“Everyone at work won’t stop talking about your… situation.”
I instantly regretted my decision, but wanted her to stay because I could feel the chasm of loneliness about to open up and swallow me whole if I had to spend one more moment in internal dialog. She undid the knot of the pashmina around her neck, curls loosened onto her shoulders where flesh looked painfully taut under blue overalls. The leaves in my tea were bitter but I drank it anyway.
“Can we talk about something else?” I said.
“As your best friend I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure you’re okay.”
I was not sure when and how that happened. Between sips of lukewarm tea I told Shelley about Dr. Rye’s suggestion for surgery.
“You should listen, she’s the best doctor in town.”
“She’s the best by default.”
Shelley laughed, “It’s not as if you have a choice, if this really is what will help. What happens the next time you pass out on the bowl?”
“I’ll wake up feeling rested and intensely bloated.”
“And what if you wake up four or five days later rather than four or five hours? There’s not one soul staying with you besides that cat of yours and it’ll eat your face off sooner than call for help. This is serious!”
I said nothing, looking down into my tea. In all honesty I had no one. I felt the words out in my mind and on the tip of my tongue. I could taste it’s melancholy. The words sat heavy like molasses, lining the roof of my mouth so it was hard to swallow. Viscous liquid plunged me into darkness again. As if sensing this, Shelley turned on a small floor lamp beside the coffee table where we sat. She poured herself another cup of tea, refilled the portable kettle at the bathroom sink, set it to boil again, then returned to her seat.
“Do you want to hear how I ended up here?” She wrapped her fingers around the mug and sniffed ginger-lemon steam with pleasure. I nodded.
“Like you, I couldn’t remember much when I came here, but after years I pieced memories together and think I have most of the story right. After my husband was buried, the thought of being alone and starting all over… it made me want to jump in the grave after him. What was left of him, anyway. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories. He was nothing but smithereens by the time they lifted the machine off of him, so we had to have a closed casket. What a cheat that was, I didn’t even see his face. What if they’d stuffed some bricks and dirty laundry in that coffin? What if it was someone else’s husband in there? I wouldn’t even know.”
Shelley looked at me as if she expected me to say something, then shook her head and continued.
“I mean, my husband was a partial pile of muscle and bones not fit for viewing. No one should have to die like that. I should have been allowed to see him.”
“Even like that?” I asked. “Even with that gruesome image?”
“Even then! My mind refused to let go because I didn’t see him being put into the ground. It wasn’t real to me. It was like he was going to walk back into the front room at any moment. There was no closure in it.” Shelley sat back looking into her hands. I wondered whether I should be comforting her, but could not think of anything appropriate to do.
“Soon after that I fell into a serious depression. It was like being enveloped in a pair of wings that took hold of me tight. I couldn’t talk. Food tasted terrible. My friends invited me places thinking a little sun was all I needed to get back to my normal self. No one knew how to deal with me. Finally, my parents had me admitted to a clinic where I was watched almost twenty four hours a day. Who could live like that? I hated my husband the most then. He was dead, and death had been so quick he hadn’t seen it coming. The hard part was over for him, but for me it was just beginning.
“A nurse would come every four hours to check my blood pressure and give medications from a tiny white cup. Their heels echoed down the hall when they walked door to door at eight, twelve, and four. This young nurse- she had to have been new, she couldn’t have been older than twenty- came in one afternoon to change my IV.” Shelley turned her right palm down, fingered a light scar between her index finger and thumb, and let out a quiet laugh. “Usually they would change it every three days, but mine was in for two weeks and my hand blew up twice the size. Every time those nurses tried to put a new IV in I would put up one hell of a fight. Who cared if it was rotting, I wanted die! If they managed to get one in I’d pull it out five minutes later. So they let this one fester for a fortnight.
“Anyhow, this young thing brought in an IV kit on a tray and placed it right next to my bed. I knew she wasn’t a smart one. I kept my eyes tiny slits so she thought I was asleep. I didn’t move an inch. I barely breathed. And when she went back to the door for a pair of gloves I grabbed the longest needle in the tray and stuck it right in the side of my neck.” Shelley measured space with her hands, about three inches wide. “That deep, I’m not joking! It didn’t hurt. It was a relief. Isn’t that sick?”
I didn’t know what to say so let out a sigh, shrugged my shoulders slightly as if to say Hey, what can I say? She fingered her pashmina in her lap. I noticed she looked strange without the garment around her neck.
“That poor nurse ran out so fast I thought she wasn’t coming back. My pillow soaked blood like a sponge. When the nurse came back everything started to turn dark. The good kind of dark, like when you’ve been in the pitch black and your eyes finally adjust to the smallest light. You let out that sigh of relief because you’re not scared anymore. Then I woke up here.”
Shelley let out a loud sigh as if she had been waiting a long time to tell this story, not particularly to me, but to anyone. “Do you think I’m a lunatic?” she asked me.
“No, I don’t.” I said, honestly. This was one of the few times I felt she was in her right mind.
“Have you ever felt that? That letting go of fear, I mean.” Shelley asked.
“I think I did once, but I can’t remember the occasion. I remeber there being a lot of birds in cages, maybe I worked in a pet store or zoo at the time, I don’t know. I couldn’t stand looking at those birds locked up in tiny cages all day. So I would open all the cage doors and leave them for a while, but when I’d come back not a single one of them would have flown away. They would just stare, all stupid eyed, like they’d completely forgotten what freedom was.”
“Boy, do I know that feeling.” Shelley poured herself another cup of tea and ruffled in the cupboard, bringing down green apples and a jar of peanut butter.
“Mind if I have these? I’m starving.”
“Not at all.”
She cut the apple into thin slices, dipped it in peanut butter and ate them.
“Mmm, I haven’t had these since I was a kid. It’s the only way my parents could get me to eat fruit; smearing it in peanut butter.”
I laughed, “Whatever helps.”
Shelley smiled at me and we ate apples together in silence.
Shelley insisted on sleeping in the spare bed, but I wanted to be alone. When she left I could hardly sleep. That night I was kept awake by the dreadful thought of waking up in her meaty arms unable to see her face, only being able to tell it was her from her head-to-toe denim. Shelley’s panty breath and spittle misted my head as she shook me awake from the floor I had been laying on for goodness knows how long. The side of my body where I’d been laying was purple and eaten away like a nursing home patient negligibly left unturned for days. I laid useless, looking up at the ceiling as a stain as black as soot spread itself from one corner of the room to the other, encompassing the room, Shelley, then my entire body.
The room I was brought into was seedier than the last, with a mix of peculiar odors: talcum powder from an open box of latex gloves Dr. Rye placed beside a gurney; tart chemicals from bulbous jars that soaked miscellaneous animal fetus’ and brains for God knows what reason; also a smell I could not put my finger on, but reminded me of what reeked off of Steve and would come off on me after being with him for a few hours. Dr. Rye’s hair was pulled into a bun so tight she looked Chinese. Her eyes flicked back and forth over the thick stack of papers I had signed and brought in, giving her permission to resect my bowels (although I was still unsure of what this meant). When I called that morning she said I’d made the right choice, and at the time I felt I had too. But standing across from her now still dressed in her lumpy, stained track suit under her doctor’s coat, an ungodly breeze whipped at the back of my open hospital gown and a lump gathered in the back of my throat again.
“What happens now?”
Dr. Rye looked up from the papers as if she’d forgotten I was there, cleared her throat, and hacked into a waste paper basket- this annoyed me for some reason.
“I’ll put you in a twilight state, not asleep but not quite awake, then I’ll remove the mass through a small incision in your abdomen.”
“Is it painful?”
“Yes. But just to start with. Then you’ll feel a bit of pressure and that’s about it.”
I could have asked an endless amount of questions but was already being walked to the narrow gurney. The smell of talcum grew stronger. On a dull metal side table, the gloves sat next to a bowl of clear liquid I was sure was alcohol. I laid on the gurney covered up to my waist in a thin sheet and looked up past a window too high to see out of. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Dr. Rye set down tools that looked unfit for use on a human, then, one by one, dumped them into the bowl.
What Dr. Rye described as a little pressure was searing, stabbing in my side that exploded from my belly, up my spine and through my arms and legs so they shot up without control, almost sending my body to the floor. She fought to keep me still for a while before Mr. Zoon came in, sprinting lopsidedly, with two chunky leather belts in hand. My arms, chest, legs, and feet were wedged down and I could do nothing but yell, until a pin prick in my arm made me nod off, but only enough to stifle my ability to move. Something fogged up the air, turning it thick as if a slice of diseased pork had been left on a frying pan for too long. I looked down and saw the smell was my own flesh drawing back and deforming under a heated tool, while my blood pooled on the floor with the drip drip drip of a leaky faucet. If Dr. Rye and Mr. Zoon had noticed, they did not show it. Instead they hummed cheerfully in unison until black took over their faces and their eyes turned to ash in their skulls.
I woke up to someone wailing like a madwoman then realized that person was me. I was still strapped down when a man’s hand came down on my cheek once, then twice, doing the opposite of calm me down.
“Just relax now sweetheart, it’s over.” Mr. Zoon’s breath acted like ammonia.
My body ached as if I’d fought a ram that had taken its’ horn to my stomach and thrashed its’ head all over. My head ached and shoulders were sore from being under tremendous strain. When I went to stand my knees buckled underneath me and the room turned black again.
I woke up in intervals. Disoriented in the passenger seat of my car. On the familiar main road that led to my hotel. Again, with the hotel manager wearily handing keys to Dr. Rye and Mr. Zoon, who looked odd even by this town’s standards. And again, with the cool ac as they placed me in bed with my shoes still on.
The sky turned dark and Dr. Rye was still there. I opened my eyes to see her standing over me with that banshee smile, her hair once taunt now wet and dripping onto the carpet. She was all dolled up in a clean tracksuit now.
“I hope you don’t mind I used your shower.”
Still in a haze I stared at her, it was a painful struggle just thinking of what to say.
“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here.”
“I couldn’t abide by sending you home alone to potentially pass out again and reverse everything we’ve done here. Just couldn’t abide by it.”
Words were snuffed out inside my mouth before they could form sentences. My mouth moved as if my gums and teeth were covered in cotton. After a while in silence she sat at the edge of my bed.
“It was a little more serious than I expected.” she smiled again, nodding at me. “You let yourself get too sick. All that black stuff was rotting you inside out.”
I sat up now, hoarse, “So, what happened?”
“I tried to remove the mass for several hours before eventually having to sedate you to try other means.” Spittle hit my forehead but I did not bother to wipe it away. “When all else failed I went to plan B, and I believe that will manage to get rid of all of it.”
She placed a cold palm on mine and let it sit as loose and unmoving as a dead fish with little practice comforting real people.
“What did you do?” the words were like sandpaper on my throat.
“Okay now, it may not look pretty.”
She lifted my shirt that was sticky from sweat and only then did I see the abnormal bulge on the right side of my abdomen. The clear plastic pouch was the size of my hand and a curdy liquid the color of black ink sat at the bottom. My shirt was rolled up underneath my breasts and I peered over them. Seeing for the first time what the bag was connected to I damn near threw up. Where a protective layer of skin used to be was a neat circle of a cut in my side with an offensive bit of intestine protruding where it had no business being.
“See, it fits right into your waistband.” Dr. Rye pulled up my waistband and tucked the bag away with a tap, “There. Good as new.”
But it was still there and I could feel it pulsating and throbbing around and I’m sure I heard it belch- it looked so alive. I couldn’t understand how this could possibly help, unless the goal was to rid me completely of the urge to use the bathroom at all. The stoma, I would find out was the proper name for it, looked ferocious. Enflamed a bright red as if it needed any more attention. Every minute or so black goo would leave my body and enter the bag, leaving me a feeling strangely light. I held onto my belly out of fear the contents would fall out, edging my way towards her, trying to grab anything- her hair, her arm, her ragged track suit- but she dodged my reach.
“What did you do?!” I felt the rage boil within me now, the chasm opening up to swallow me again.
“It was your only choice.” Dr. Rye was walking backwards towards the door shaking her head, watching me as if I had any strength to chase after her. “You needed this, otherwise you’d never see the end of this place. I’m sorry.” Then she was gone.
I lay in the dark while the town went quiet, unable to move without immense pain. Then I called the one person I knew could help.
Shelley labored to bring my bags and boxes into my car, begging with each step that I stay at least until my wound healed but even she knew that would not happen. I’d done little unpacking, only hanging up a few winter coats I never used. She carried me into my car, gently bringing the seat belt around then squeezing my shoulder.
“Give it some time. This is the worst part, but soon all that darkness will be out of you and we can go back to being good friends again.”
The car door slammed and Shelley turned into a dusty silhouette in the distance. I drove on roads that seemed endless in the limited streetlight, revealing ten feet ahead of the car at a time. I had no idea where I was going or where the road led but knew I needed any road leading away from here. I pulled over only to nurse the pain in my stomach, emptying the sluggish contents that had left me congested onto the side of the road when the bag got too full. The gas tank was half full and my vision blurry, making the shops I passed all resemble the same place. Then, I started to double back on the same people, their faces were expressionless in the dark. Looking into the rear view mirror for the nth time I caught my own reflection and I was sure I had no eyes, just blood running down my cheeks and hollow voids where they used to be.