A few weeks after returning from North Dakota, Derek invited me to sushi. It was his birthday and he wanted to spend it with friends. Everyone was there, laughing and drinking in a hip restaurant downtown. Trendy music played on hidden speakers and the waitresses were dressed in black.
“So what happened?” Asked Mallory, her big, dark eyes sparkling in the candle light.
“I went to dinner, with Derek actually,” I said, pointing at the birthday boy. “I ate green beans and fried chicken. Something about the chicken set me off. I’d been sick for a long time, but the chicken pushed me over the edge. When I got home I started throwing up blackened death shit. It looked like coffee grounds, but with blood in it.”
“I’m eating,” said Jenny, putting down her fork.
“Sorry,” I took a swig of sake, the bitter liquid burned my throat, filling my insides with fire. “It was gross and terrible and I thought I was going to die. The doctors put me on prednisone and the prednisone drove me insane. I heard voices and saw shadows move. I hallucinated a dead rat where my penis used to be,” my friends shifted uncomfortably in their seats, most of them had already heard the dead-rat-where-my-penis-used-to-be story. “The rat turned its head 180°, looking behind itself like an owl,” the memory washed over me, encompassing and dark. “Its eyes and mouth opened and light poured out, white light consumed everything.” I set my cup down with a ceramic clank. “I thought I was God. I thought I was incarnating on earth through the rat portal where my penis used to be.” An awkward quiet fell on the table. No one knew what to say.
“But you’re better now?” Jonathan broke the silence, plucking sushi from a plate with nimble chopsticks.
“Well, I’ll always have Chron’s, but I feel good most days. I’m managing with diet and exercise.” I ate a bite of seaweed salad. The texture was fresh, accented with a touch of sesame oil. The sake continued to burn, deeper and deeper, searching out the ulcers where Sauron laired.
“I’m glad you’re still around,” said Derek. “Some of us thought you weren’t going to make it.”
“I made it,” I said, tears welling up. The restaurant was empty except for our party. The night surrounded like a blanket. It felt like we were on a stage, like there was nothing but the table and the food and our friendship, a moment that might last forever. “I made it,” I raised my glass in toast.
Jonathan clinked his cup against mine, “To Derek and Nathan and birthdays!”
“To Derek and Nathan and birthdays!” We all repeated.
I drank another shot, my head filling with clouds. It slithered down my throat, joining with the army already punching through my stomach. Gollum watched from the shadows, his eyes glinting large and round. His master lurked inside me, asleep and waiting. His mistress sat on a shelf in my apartment, stinking, fetid and mad. They were patient, my enemies, and I was broken. It was only a matter of time.
“My new job is stressful,” said Derek. “And incredibly boring. I think I need to find something else.”
Derek’s life was always in flux. He changed apartments and jobs like some people changed clothes. One semester he was in college and the next he was starting a business. He wasn’t flakey, just discontent, always searching, always struggling, trying to better himself and the world. I was trying to change my life as well, but it had taken calamity to push me in the right direction.
“Maybe you could try to be a teacher,” said Jenny. Derek was always talking about being a teacher, about wanting to help people instead of making money, but the lure of wealth always pulled him back, his bank account was larger than the rest of the table’s combined.
“I’ve been thinking about it,” said Derek thoughtfully, “I’d have to go back to school.”
“For the twelfth time,” Jonathan rolled his eyes. Derek already had enough credits to graduate, except that all of his credits were in different areas of study.
“There’s this company in Chicago that’s trying to hire me on at their firm,” we all groaned. Derek floated through life like a lucky rabbit, his every movement tended by guardian angels. Where others struggled, Derek thrived. An impressive specimen indeed.
We talked and joked and reminisced, catching up on one another’s lives, looking towards the future. Jenny was dating, but she wasn’t in love. Mallory was thinking about buying a new house. Jonathan was about to graduate with a Master’s and Derek was scheming all sorts of adventures. I was planning on going back to school for engineering. My stomach burned and twisted, growing more bloated and uncomfortable by the minute.
Eventually, the waitress brought the check, signaling the end of our time together. “I’ve got this,” said Derek, taking the folder with its cushioned sides.
“No, you don’t,” I pulled it out of his hand, “Not on your birthday.” Mallory and Jenny agreed, only Jonathan kept silent, he didn’t like to spend money, even on his roommate’s birthday.
“Birthdays are sacred,” I said, placing my credit card inside the padded folder. I was out of money, I was living on loans, but I would be damned if my friend paid for his birthday meal. “We’re here to celebrate your fleeting time on this planet. Let us treat you while we still can.”
“Morbid,” said Mallory.
“You’re so weird,” Jenny took the check from me and added her card to the pile.
“Enlightened,” I corrected her, “I’m so enlightened.”
“Enlightenment is rare,” said Jonathan, “which, by definition, makes you strange and out of place.”
Derek laughed. Everyone laughed. They were right, of course. I could pretend it was otherwise, but I had been raised by a witch, a surly behemoth who filled my head with stories of powers and principalities. She taught me that there was a world parallel to our own and that the spirits who danced along its crystal shores were more lasting and real than flesh and gold. As a child I believed those stories and that fact still echoed, shaping my words and deeds. If you listened you could hear her singing; if you looked, you could see her lessons stitched into my bones.
“Well I’m glad you still invite my weird ass to your birthday parties,” I handed the pile of cards to the waitress who took them to the cash register. It was an odd ritual, the sharing of food, a tradition both ancient and mundane, a simple rite that brought people together. My stomach lurched. I had eaten the body, I had tasted the blood, but I was not worthy. My sins had been found out.
“You alright?” Asked Derek as we walked out of the restaurant and into the street.
“I probably shouldn’t have drank that sake.” My head was swimming, my limbs were heavy, a tiny knife was poking me inside.
“Well, thanks for coming out,” he hugged me. I hugged him back, slapping his arms in the way men do, “I’m glad you’re OK.”
“Me too,” I held my side, pressing down into the place where Sauron laired. I looked up at the sky, beyond the trees, into the infinite black. The stars were missing, obscured by the glow of halogen bulbs. Every day our world grew brighter, its evenings lit by knowledge and understanding, but these advances came at a price. The magic was dying, the heavens grew dark. “Remember when we watched the Nuggets lose to L.A.?” I was thinking about my book and how it would end. “This whole crazy story starts in a restaurant,” I pointed at the sushi bar we had just left, connecting the literary dots. “Maybe it’ll end in one too.”
“That was the weirdest night ever.” Derek put his hands in his pockets.
“What a disaster,” I shook my head and we both began to laugh.
We had driven to Boulder to see Little Ex No. 2 perform with her ballet company. It was a night full of Avant Garde pieces. They would have been hilarious if that was the intent. It wasn’t.
“All that screeching and jumping around,” Derek recounted the awkward horror.
“So uncomfortable. I thought it would never end.”
“Then the director came out and begged everyone for money…” Derek trailed off, watching the street lights flicker.”
“You ordered a salad once we got to the bar,” I kicked a loose stone into the street, “do you remember? You’ve always been so good at that, at being healthy. Maybe if I had ordered a salad, none of this would have happened.”
“Don’t beat yourself up,” said Derek, “you couldn’t have known.”
“I did know,” I sighed heavily, “I’d known for a long time. I’m a slave. Food is my master.” My stomach gurgled noisily, trying to digest the alcohol and sushi, “I’m not like you. I don’t have self control.”
“Accepting responsibility is the first step.” Derek repeated the worn axiom. I was tired of people like Derek, filled with excellence, constantly moving towards perfection. I wanted to sleep inside indulgence, to be happy with my failures. I was tired of trying.
“But tonight is good,” I continued, “tonight was great. Maybe the final chapter will describe us standing on this corner looking up at the sky and talking about life and cycles and the ritual of birth and death and how everything seems important at the time, but really it’s fleeting and empty. Maybe the book will end where it began, with you and me at a restaurant.”
“I can’t wait to read it.”
“I can’t wait to write it.” I hugged him one last time, “Happy Derek’s birthday,” I said to my friend.
“Happy Derek’s birthday,” he laughed.
But the story wasn’t over. My grandma had to die before it could end, and she was tough as worn leather. It would take a long time. I unlocked my bike and rode home, the pain increasing with each block.
• • •
“She got you, yes she did,” said Gollum. “got you like a dead fish.” He stood near the hallway, keeping his distance, ready to scamper off if I made any sudden moves. “You’re not going to get better.”
I had come home and laid down, hoping to sleep off my poor decisions, but the pain kept me awake. “It’s not as bad as before,” I said. “I just need to tough it out.”
“This isn’t North Dakota,” Gollum slid a few inches closer, “your sister isn’t here to save you.”
I remembered Hruza’s words. The old hippie doctor said diet and exercise weren’t enough. He said I needed something more. I wanted him to be wrong.
On a shelf in the cupboard in my kitchen, a bottle of pills watched the moon trace shadows across the floor.
• • •
Jenn and Kyle came to get me. They took me to a bookstore, to a room full of books. Their friend was giving a reading. It was hard to focus. There was too much pain. Their friend read a passage from his book. He had written the book and someone had published it. I didn’t care. I wanted to go home. After the reading, on the way out, we had to stop. We had to stop so I could sit and rest. The pain made it hard to walk. I was having trouble walking.
“What happened?” Asked Jenn, rubbing my back sympathetically, “I thought you were better.”
“Sake,” I shook my head pathetically, “I drank too much sake.”
“You should take some prednisone,” said Kyle.
“School starts on Monday,” I hunched to my feet and began limping towards the car. “I have to be sane for school.”
I had already missed the summer semester because of my disease and I would be damned if I missed another. I laid down in the back seat and tried to find zen.
• • •
“You’re starting to shrivel,” said Gollum seriously.
“I’m getting better,” I winced as pain stabbed through my guts. “It doesn’t hurt as bad any more.”
Gollum looked towards the kitchen with its shelf full of pills, “You can’t escape her forever.”
“I can. I just need to get back on track. No more sake, and I’ll be fine.” But I could hear Shelob breathing, a soft rattle, like paper on leaves. She had grown. She had healed.
• • •
The chairs in calculus were hard plastic with no cushions to dampen the blow. I had lost all the weight in my ass. The skin hung in baggy folds. A dull ache spread down my legs.
“I’m a podcaster,” said the guy sitting next to me. He had too much hair. He looked like George Lucas. He set a fancy MP3 recorder on the table. It was a giant microphone with buttons and a hidden power supply. It looked expensive. “I use this microphone to record my podcasts,” he smiled proudly, “now it’s coming in handy for calculus.”
“Wow,” I said, trying to sound impressed. I was a podcaster, too, but I didn’t tell him that. It wasn’t important. I was trying to get through class. My stomach lurched and bent and kicked. My ass throbbed with pain.
The calculus professor at the city college was young and jaded, “Our schedule is tight. We don’t have time to mess around,” his eyes were sunken, rimmed with dark circles, and his hair was unkempt, “but we’re going to take a few days to review algebraic concepts that are important for this course.” The way he talked, you could tell his last class had been filled with kids who didn’t know what they were doing.
As the professor reviewed highlights from pre calculus, the pain in my ass became unbearable. It felt like someone was stabbing me with ache. I tried to focus past the pain, to melt into the fabric of the universe, but the plastic chairs were too hard, they could not be denied.
“Alright guys, take a 15 minute break,” the class was so long, each lecture came with allotted sabbaticals, “we’ll start again at 3:57.”
“I hope his voice picked up,” said the podcaster with too much hair. He fiddled with the buttons on his MP3 recorder.
I stood up and hobbled to the door, dragging my backpack behind me. I wandered outside and laid down on a cement bench, covering my eyes with one hand.
“How was your summer?” It was Wayne, this pothead I’d tutored in pre calc.
“I got pretty sick.” I said, shading my eyes with one hand.
“My mom bought me that Subaru.” Wayne’s mom said she would buy him a Subaru if he got good grades.
The sun was bright and blinding, my ass was sore and broken, my guts throbbed in time to my heart. I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the rest of class. And then there was tomorrow and the next day, and the one after that.
Wayne continued to talk, I ignored him, listening instead to the birds and the voices and the students walking to class. Eventually, we got up and went back to calculus.
• • •
The trashcan beside me was full of watermelon vomit. I couldn’t even keep liquids down. I sat there, breathing heavy, trying to program an A.I. The pillows beneath me tried to dampen the throbbing, but my ass was sore and hollow. I promised myself that I wouldn’t work on calculus until my program compiled, but the file was full of errors. My code was junk. I didn’t know what I was doing and the pain made it hard to concentrate. After a while I gave up. I pulled out my calculus book and started working problems. An hour later, my phone rang.
“Hi, honey, how are you?” It was my mom, the Craterhoof Behemoth of Healing.
“Fine,” I said absently, trying to talk while I worked my way through a graphing function.
“Well,” she sighed heavily, not knowing where to begin, “I’ve been in the hospital all day,” there was a weariness in her voice, “grandma got into a car accident. She’s been in Intensive Care since three thirty.”
My blood went cold. I set down my pencil. I had visited an Intensive Care Unit, once. To see my girlfriend’s mom. When I walked through the door, the thing I found was monstrous— stretched and bloated, like a creature out of nightmare. Her kidneys and liver had shut down leaving her body to fill with its own fluids. I left the room and sat in the hallway for three days. She died on a Monday. Intensive Care Units were terrible places. I had seen one first hand. “What happened?” I asked, terror clutching my limbs.
“She hit an oncoming semi carrying 30 tons of scrap metal. The collision broke three ribs. There’s internal bruising and some of her organs might be damaged. The MRI says her brain was sheared from her skull.”
“Sheared?” I threw up again, water and bile dribbling into the trashcan.
“When I got to the hospital, she was conscious and talking,” my mom’s voice was calm and clinical, she was a nurse and had seen this kind of thing before; she was a daughter and her heart was breaking. “The doctors wanted to give her morphine, I told them that the last time she took an opiate her blood pressure dropped and she almost fell into a coma. I told them not to give her anything without my permission, then I left the room to get something to eat. When I came back she was unconscious with an I.V. in her arm,” my mother’s voice was measured, like a detective on the witness stand, “I checked her vitals and found that her blood pressure had dropped. They had given her morphine and it snowed her under,” she paused for a moment, I could hear the squeaks and beeps of the hospital behind her, “they killed my mother.”
I looked at the folding card table covered in homework. A calculus book sat on top. There was a piece of paper with my handwriting on it. How many people had worked those same problems? Was mankind doomed to learn the same lessons time and time again? My grandma was dying. And there was nothing I could do to stop her. Gollum shifted in the corner. Sauron watched from on high. “What do we do?”
To who? The universe was vast and dark and cold. Humanity was small and insignificant. “What about grandpa?” I asked, holding my head in my hand. The old rancher was pushing 100, a weathered piece of granite, as tough as they came, but he needed help. My grandma had taken care of him his entire life. He didn’t even know how to cook. “What about your surgery?” I asked. There was something wrong with my mom. She had a tumor. In a few months doctors were going to operate. She would be incapacitated, “Who will take care of grandpa while you’re recovering from surgery?”
“She’s not dead yet,” my mom said, “we’ll have to wait and see.”
I looked at my homework, my stupid, pointless homework. How many hours had I spent worrying about the abstractions inside? Was math a hidden language created by a greater being, a clue to unlock the purpose of everything, or was it a language man had invented, a way of understanding what we perceive? How much more of my life would I waste jumping through hoops? “This has been a terrible summer,” I was crazy, my body broken. My cousin was dead. My mom found his body. And now this. How many cuts could one family endure? “I can move home. If you want.” I would have to drop out of school. There would be student loans and medical bills, and Grand Junction was short on jobs, but when your grandma gets hit by a semi, you have to do your part. “I could take care of you after your surgery and help out with grandpa if grandma—” my throat caught, I couldn’t say the words.
“Yes,” my mom said without thinking. I was sick. She wanted me close. My grandma was dying. I wanted to be close.
It would be terrible. Grand Junction was terrible, a small town on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains; shriveled, cut off from anything resembling culture, a blighted wasteland of mediocrity, but my grandma was hurt and my family needed me. My stomach bent and stabbed, tears began to fall. My fate was sealed. “I can move home.”
“I have to go,” my mom said. “I’ll call in a while.”
Stress triggers Chron’s. I hung up the phone and fell to my knees. My stomach hurt. My head hurt. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to disappear. I lay on the floor, the pain in my guts building to crescendo. Sauron’s power was growing. I could barely walk. My grandma’s brain was shorn from her skull. I could barely eat. I might never see her again. “Please, let me sleep,” I sobbed. But the pain was too real.
Gollum crept closer, like a dog on three legs, a pair of pink pills clutched in one hand, “She can help,” he slid the tablets towards me. “She is strong.”
I looked at his gift, two, tiny tablets, each scored down the middle. An ancient malice stared back. I took the pills in trembling fingers. I disappeared into madness.
end book 3
to be continued