“You shit yourself today.”
The terrifying figure crouched next to me, his skin pale, his eyes red.
“Just a little.” The cave was dark, lit from outside by a world gone mad.
“You shouldn’t have eaten at KFC.”
“I know.” I’d been paying for it all day, fearsome gurgles ripping across my stomach, making my coworkers laugh. “What’s going on?” I asked, looking outside where giant earth motes had torn free from the ground to dance across a sky filled with lightning and fire.
“It’s the end of the world,” said Nega Nate, his rune-carved skin rippling with muscles.
“But my story isn’t finished.”
“You’ll have to hurry,” he fiddled absently with his blade, a magic thing of immense value, set carelessly on the ground.
“There’s never enough time,” I said. Outside, thunder pealed. “I’ve written 7 chapters, but they’re terrible. I need to start over.”
Nega Nate looked at the world beyond the cave, “The magic is gone.” He turned to face me, “You killed Shelob.”
A gurgle ripped across my stomach, penance for my sins. Two years had passed since the nightmare began. I’d gone from sick, to mad, to something else. Changed, but not really. My arms were skinny. I could feel the weight of years. I used to be so strong. Shelob was gone. I was managing my disease with diet and exercise. Sometimes I failed. Sometimes I ate Kentucky Fried Chicken. The results were embarrassing, like shitting yourself at work.
“Shelob was the glue that held things together. We’ve begun to fade: Scott, MP, even you.”
I looked at my fingers, those frail-things-once-strong. Hadn’t words stormed out of them? I could no longer remember. “My gift is gone. I can’t finish,” I flexed my hands. “I need something else.”
“Finish,” growled the creature in front of me, my darker self. “For once in your miserable life finish something.”
I cleared my throat and began to recount the days before my colonoscopy. “I passed the weekend surrounded,” the words echoed hollow in the cave. “People came to me with food, they called and texted, took me shopping. I didn’t understand. I thought it was funny. What had I done to deserve this? Kim told me to buy baby wipes. She said I’d need them once the Super Lax took hold. She said the diarrhea it induced was terrifying. I went to Target, Lorenzo and his girl drove me on account of the madness. I bought two packages of generic wipes. I also bought an MP3 recorder.”
I stopped talking, the last words ringing out. MP3 recorder. “That’s where I fucked up.”
My foil stretched his back, a series of cracks, mimicking the thunder outside, “Where?”
“I started recording everything. I’ve gotten to the part in the story where I started recording and it’s all fucked up. I can’t write. I feel like Pac-Man, eating dots with no ghosts, following a set path. The game is boring.”
“So play a different game.”
“But it won’t make sense.” The earth shook, a tremor, portent of cataclysm. “I’ve established a narrative and a pace. It’s a steady thing, slow and detailed.”
The creature sighed, “Why are you so afraid?” His blade lit, faint and ominous, he played with it absently. “Fuck symmetry, you are not important, your words even less-so. You are a speck, hurtling through space atop a speck. All your strivings amount to nothing. Write your story. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
“I want to be famous.”
He looked at me, vexed and angry that I was ignoring the lengths he had gone through to bring me to this cave. “Just tell me what happened.”
Jackie called. She said I wasn’t possessed. My mom and Pat kept telling me I was possessed. They said that prednisone, in the form of Shelob, had broken my mind. Jackie calmed me down, she told me it was going to be OK. Then she started talking about herbs, about magic and the ancient arts, about the body’s ability to heal itself. “I want you to go to the store and buy some marshmallow root.”
“I can hear it in your voice. Sound is just a vibration. It can be measured, like any thing else.”
“You can hear marshmallow root in my voice?”
Preposterous, ridiculous, “Will you stay on the line while I walk?”
My first lie. I didn’t ask Jackie to stay on the line while I walked, I never said those words. Jackie stayed on the line while I walked because she wanted to. I don’t know why. I wrote that to ease the transition between my apartment and the grocery store. The details don’t matter. The soul of the thing is what I’m looking for. I can connect the dots, but without ghosts, the game lacks meaning. Science and religion, faith and fact. One cannot exist without the other.
“Put the pills against your stomach and say, marshmallow root.”
I was standing in an upscale grocery store, in an aisle full of herbs, the air reeked with their magic. I grabbed a bottle and put it against my stomach, “Marshmallow root.”
“Try another one.”
I decided to test her. I grabbed a different bottle filled with different herbs, “Marshmallow root.”
“No, that’s all wrong, go back to the first.”
Was it true? Could she hear magic in my voice? The implications were terrifying. I bought the bottle Jackie recommended and returned home. I took three of the beige capsules. They made me feel a little better.
In the cave, I stopped talking, entranced by the destruction outside.
“Then what?” asked the figure next to me.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“What do you want to talk about?”
“Nothing. I want this to be over. I’m tired.”
“But the ending is so good.”
I had told Nega Nate about the ending, about Sauron and our clash in the final battle sequence, “Yeah, but I’ll never make it, and no one will read it if I do.”
“You never know.”
And that was the fuck of it all. Maybe someone would read it, maybe a pretty girl or millions of adoring fans. Maybe they would fall in love and sing my praises.
“And if not?” Asked Nega Nate. “Would it be worth it if no one cares.”
The storm grew strangely silent. I sat for a moment, staring at the flickering flame of my nemesis’ blade, “No.”
That’s what’s so horrible about all of this, about art in general. I need you, dear reader, but I don’t know if you are there, if my strivings are dust. Hope plays tricks. I stretch across the eons and can feel you, can feel my words existing in your mind, but I have been wrong before, my magic has failed before. “Is a thing worth doing for it’s own sake?” It was my turn to question my companion.
“You sound so confident, but no man can know his heart.”
“Artists,” the creature laughed, “you take everything so seriously. We are nothing, the dust of stars, our planet could crumble and who would mourn? You could succeed beyond all expectations and the universe would not notice. There is freedom in this. Freedom to try, freedom to fail.”
“You don’t know that. It may be that our actions echo for all eternity, that every moment is laden with meaning.”
“How would this change things?”
“It makes existence terrifying. I would rather stand still than move in the wrong direction.”
“Inaction is decision. Embrace your nothingness. If no man knows the shape of the universe we are free to make it what we will. Write with all your heart knowing you cannot fail, for what is failure but the reverse of a coin without purpose?”
So I tried again.
Robbie texted. He was in South America. He was coming home on Wednesday. I broke down, collapsed, crying in my bathroom. The tile was cool and damp. Robbie was coming home, everything was going to be alright. I wrote to him.
You’re my Sam. The drugs are moving through me. I can’t stop shaking. The Dark Lord is coming, but he can’t hurt me. Not if you’re around.
In my personal, depraved mythology, Robbie had become Sam, Frodo’s faithful companion. Thoughts of him had sustained me in the dark days before the doctors and their all-consuming pills. As I lay dying, it was Robbie that gave me hope.
What are you talking about?
A million miles away my friend began to worry.
After Robbie texted but before Samantha came over I met some friends at a local restaurant. It was Friday or Saturday. I could listen to the recording and find out, but I no longer care. There was a table and at the table I began to cry. My friends were all so beautiful, the juice I ordered tasted so good. But it was just the pills. I wanted to share my joy, but how to explain? I tried to explain. Instead, I sat there crying.
Back in the cave.
“This world is falling apart because it never existed to begin with,” I said. Nega Nate had built a small, smoldering fire. “Doctors fashioned it from pills. They altered the chemicals in my brain. What if they are the geniuses? What if Kugelmas wrote my book?”
“What if he did?” Nega Nate stoked the fire with his magic blade.
“My whole life I’ve wanted to write, but was always too lazy. Under the influence of prednisone I became a madman, able to pound pages 16 hours at a stretch. But I’ve stopped taking the medication. Now I write at a snail’s pace and every word is terrible. The drugs changed the chemicals in my brain and I became an author. When I stopped taking them I went back to normal. Is that true of most artists? Is there a physiological difference in the brains of the gifted few? Is success genetic?”
Smoke filled the cave, Nega Nate inhaled deeply, drawing dark clouds into his lungs, “Who cares?”
“Everyone. We all want to believe we are in control, that we can will ourselves to do amazing things, but what if it isn’t true? We imagine that by working harder we can amount to something, but what if effort itself is the result of structures beyond our control?”
“You tell me.”
“If that’s true, I can stop writing. I can give up and it won’t be my fault. I can blame the chemicals in my brain.”
“Would that make you happy?”
“Nothing makes me happy, but maybe even this is not my fault, just a result of —”
“—the chemicals in your brain,” Nega Nate nodded, understanding. “Causality begets nihilism. Or maybe it’s the other way around. It doesn’t matter. I brought you here because I wanted to hear the end of the story.”
Samantha came over, beautiful and tan. She was checking up on me, making sure I was OK. She helped me take my Super Lax, “Are you pregnant?” She asked as she read the instructions. Apparently the stuff was dangerous for pregnant women, I imagined an innocent mom shitting out her baby.
“My sister is pregnant, does that count?”
“Yeah,” laughed Samantha. “I guess you’ll have to cancel your colonoscopy.”
She mixed the serum in the cup that came with the kit. It was thick and sweet. Buried under the chemical sweetener was a nasty tail, vile and wrong. I almost finished it.
“You gonna be OK?”
Samantha hugged me and left.
The laxative took hold. I began to shit watery diarrhea. I had the baby wipes I’d bought, the ones Kim told me to use, but it was a nasty affair. I realized I already had a better solution. If you’ve been shitting yourself for 10 years, you learn a few things. The first is that toilet paper is the enemy. Toilet paper is made out of thousands of microscopic wood chips. If you use it often enough, those wood chips tear thousands of holes, the holes fill with bacteria and you get hemorrhoids. The solution is to take a shower each time you shit. It’s inconvenient and your back dries out from all the water, but inconvenience and a dry back are far better than the alternative. I looked at the soiled baby wipe in my hand and laughed. When it came to diarrhea, I didn’t need advice.
I passed the night taking trips to the bathroom, my guts drained, by morning my intestines would be pristine.
I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep. I wrote through the night. Oh, to reclaim that madness.
The next day Jamie came for me. He took me to the hospital. I paid with fake money, student loans the government had given back when I thought I could make it as an engineer. The nurses led me to a room filled with curtains and beds. In this manufactured semblance of decency I took off my clothes and donned an airy gown. Beneath my bed sat a rack with plastic bins. Inside those bins I stashed my clothes along with the MP3 recording device I had bought at Target. The tiny robot rode with me into the operating room. I thought its recordings would be a short cut, a way to remember without remembering, but now the little bastard was trying to destroy my story.
“I am not.” The robot had trudged across miles of death and scorn to reach the safety of our cave. His body was impervious, round edges and soft angles, the kind of thing you see in films.
I coughed because of the smoke in the cave. “Leave. I can’t write because of you.”
“You can and have,” the robot’s voice was deep and soothing. “The story is accurate, this is preferred.”
“I’m tired of tracing dotted lines.”
“True shapes emerge. You forgot about the wig.” He was talking about something that happens in two chapters, when Robbie finally comes home. “Without the wig, your story changed. I reminded you.”
“The story is better because of it.”
“Part of the story is better. The rest is drudgery.”
“I was faithful. I served you well. Listen, as I did.”
“I can’t. I can’t bear to hear the quaver in my voice, I don’t want to see the true shape of the mad thing I became.”
The robot turned its head slightly, trying to understand. “To alter history is to change reality. Future turns to past. What remains is memory. To deny what was is to change what is. You forge lies out of truth.”
“Don’t listen to him,” said Nega Nate, eyeing the robot with malice. “Perfection is an illusion. The important thing is to finish.”
A few hours before, on a cold, windswept plain lay a curled, naked figure. Nega Nate approached, steady strides covering the distance with remarkable speed. He reached down and touched my shoulder, “The world is crumbling. We must go.”
I looked up, too terrified to move. My dark counterpart lifted me over one shoulder. He carried me to the cave. “We’ll be safe here,” he said. “For a while.” He looked out as the storm raged, “But everything ends, eventually.”
“Make him leave,” I pointed at the robot, the machine I had worn around my neck for an entire summer.
Nega Nate stood. The green eye of the robot glowed incessantly, the light refracting strange in the smoky cave. Nega Nate stepped forward, the rags he wore as clothing swayed with his movement.
“I will wait outside,” said the robot. He paused for a moment, then turned, “Call if you need me.” The automaton walked out of the cave, into a landscape turned nightmare. I could see him through the smoke, crouched a short distance from the entrance.
“Some of these things are true.” I said. “The robot was with me in the darkness. It listened while I was under anesthesia. I’ve since played back the recording.”
The nurses wheeled me into a cold operating room. The Mexican who stuck me full of needles told me the reason they kept the room so cold was because of microbes, they didn’t want diseases to grow. I remember none of the procedure, but Hruza, my new doctor, spoke to me and I did as he said. He told me to turn over, so I turned over. He told me to lift my knees, I lifted them. He apologized when the camera bit something deep inside.
Then he found Sauron.
“There it is,” said Hruza. An image of the all-seeing eye appeared on twin screens, staring out at the small ceremony. The oracle had found its prey, “Chron’s.” My enemy, revealed at last, his true name spoken, his magic laid bare.
“He’s uninsured,” said Hruza, turning me slightly, “the poor guy. He could be saved by Obama Care if he can hang in there that long.” His goggles reflected the wicked light of the sorcerer, now manifest. The all-seeing eye seemed unafraid. Hruza had found him, but what could he do?
“Let’s take some random colons now. Take a few from the right and a few from the left. We’re not going to take a whole lot. Up on your side for me now, Nathan. Things are going well, we’ll be done in a few minutes.”
Hruza’s words still haunt me. He said only Obama Care could save me. For two years I’ve tried to prove him wrong. I’ve stayed off his medications, maintaining something like health with diet and exercise. I eat KFC only when necessary. My body has begun to heal. There is hope, but also terror. Chron’s flows in cycles. Thirty-six months from now I may once again be in the hospital.
Hruza took pictures and samples of my insides. I moaned and mumbled through a thick screen of drugs. When they wheeled me out I was still incoherent. I cracked jokes with the nurses, offering to trade them paintings for pills. I remember none of this.
Then Hruza returned with the results of my colonoscopy. He showed me pictures of my intestines and talked me through what he had found. The place where large intestine turned to small was enflamed, torn, broken. My body was attacking itself. “It appears to be going into remission, probably because of the prednisone, but I never use prednisone long term. As you ween off the steroid we often see the Chron’s flare up again, so as you taper off the medicine I want to try you on another drug called azathioprine, it’s
the cheaper alternative to remicade which costs about $2,000 a dose.”
“I have,” my mind was trying to wake up, Hruza was telling me things, I needed to listen, “Chron’s?”
“The biopsies are pending, but it looks like it.”
“And now you’re putting me on another steroid?”
“Not a steroid, long term steroid use is a terrible way to go, in two weeks I’ll put you on a different drug that you’ll take for many years to come. You have a chronic condition that will never go away. You’re going to get to know our office very well.”
“They think Chron’s might be genetic, right?” Asked Jamie, who had joined me by my bed.
“No,” said Hruza, “there may be a genetic component, but the primary source is environmental. Bacteria gets in the colon and triggers the immune system and then, for some reason, it doesn’t shut off, the body keeps attacking itself. There’s a whole lot we don’t know about it.” He turned to me, “Have you heard of the Chron’s and Colitis Foundation of America?”
“Is it a T.V. show?”
“It’s an organization where people with your condition meet to support each other.”
“Like Fight Club for diarrhetics?”
One of the nurses chimed in, “Kind of, except it’s for fat, old ladies.” Hruza laughed at that. “They have a walk coming up this weekend.”
My cotton mind processed this, “A fat old, lady walk?”
“There’s a lot of young people.”
“Do they wander from porta potty to porta potty?”
She laughed, “There are t-shirts.”
“Are the t-shirts brown?”
And on and on. I kept asking if I had Chron’s. I kept forgetting Hruza’s answer. Eventually Jamie limped me out of the operating room. There was a woman in the elevator. I told her Jamie had eaten a smurf and that its screams had been horrifying. I know this because the robot told me.
In the cave I turned to face my alter ego, “And that was the story of the time they shoved cameras up my butt.” Nega Nate exhaled slowly, the dense fog pouring out of his lungs. He leaned against the wall of the cave, relaxed and affable. “Is this smoke getting us high?” I asked.
“Hopefully.” He chuckled as he coughed.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been high. I suppose I’ll tell you about that next.”
Outside the cave, dust had begun to cover my robot.
to be continued