Present day, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, OH; USA
I open the door to the hospital room, my arms full of coffee, bagels, other assorted snacks, a diaper-bag-sized purse, and today’s newspaper.
I say it with gusto, just on the off chance that the figure on the bed will rouse, lift his head despite all of the tubes and monitors, to raise an admonishing eyebrow and tell me that I look a disaster. And, that if I wish to raise my voice in that tone I should just unplug him now because the shrillness is torture.
But he doesn’t. His eyes stay closed, and the heart monitor gives a lone beep while the breathing machine wheezes.
I refuse to be dissuaded, and give my hair a toss as I stride purposefully into the room.
“That’s fine. Don’t get up.”
Ha, that’s funny, I’m funny.
I round the foot of his bed, manage not to trip over anything, and attempt to keep verbal momentum.
“You’re not going to believe this shit.”
I sit in the well-worn armchair, as close to the bed as possible, and register mild surprise that it is still warm from my brother who left minutes ago. It looks as though someone spilled soup on the arm of the ugly dusty orange-and-red 80's pattern. A quick sniff confirms it.
I dump the rest of my shit on the table nearby and snap open the newspaper smartly.
“Notre Dame lost to Navy last night… I know what you’re going to say, but I’m not telling you the score because I’m not interested in dealing with you herniating your groin or something on top of everything else. But, suffice it to say that you can probably wave the largest I-told-you-so flag in the universe and everyone would agree that Brian Kelly should have been fired last season.”
I pause for his response. None comes, but that’s fine.
I keep scanning the newspaper whilst talking, “I’m wearing the fighting leprechaun sweatshirt you got me because I know we’re not fair weather fans, but I’ll be honest some of the orderlies are judging me hard, I can tell...”
“Paper says it’s supposed to rain later… Sunset is at 6:38 tonight… Garfield sucks today.”
I finally lose a little steam and look up into his face. My dad looks like if Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford had an Irish baby. My brother Vince looks like that too, but if Liam and Harrison’s body double was only seventeen. Our youngest brother, Sam, who’s fifteen, has a much rounder, younger face.
He’s in a room two doors down the hall.
My cousin Genevieve, my father’s sister’s daughter, is in the room next to his. She’s 35.
They are all in equal states of fucked. My brother Vinny has probably joined our mother in Sammy’s room, while more of my extended family is with Gen. The three of them have multiple cancers that seem to be a particularly horrendous genetic lottery within our family; brain, lungs, and stomach are all diseased at once, and it’s so overwhelming that even the best facilities and best doctors have had minimal luck making progress against it. Gen’s mother, my aunt, died three weeks ago.
The door of my father’s room opens, and Vin comes in.
“Do you need anything?” He asks.
“I’m fucking solid. I brought snacks. You want snacks?” I gesture to my pile.
“Oh hells yes,” and he snags the flamin’ hot cheetos.
We go quiet for a moment. I look back to my dad’s face and I notice that he looks paler than yesterday beneath his freckles. I fiddle with the well-worn hem of my sweatshirt sleeve, which is a forest green.
I glance back at Vinny, “We should stop cussing. I think he can hear it from purgatory or wherever, and its pissing him off.”
He flinches, “I wish you wouldn’t say stuff like that. Or, at the very least don’t say it around mom.”
I look away and begin studying a hideous painting of a single rose lying in a puddle, located on the opposite wall to the windows, which are behind me, “You know they would be making the same jokes if they could. You guys aren’t doing them any favors by being too solemn.”
He shrugs. “I know,” he says, “you’ve always been better at that stuff though. We aren’t as strong.”
My eyebrows lower of their own accord, and I turn back to him and study his teenage face, trying to suss out whether he finds my cavalier attitude upsetting or not. His grey-brown eyes are honest, if shrewd. He must have grown another inch because his shirt sleeves are too-short, above his wrists. He too, I notice, chose to wear his fighting Irish gear in solidarity today.
“No one blames you, you know,” he says softly, holding my eyes, “for coping with this shit how you do. I mean, I don’t have a psych degree or anything but mom was saying how survivors guilt may be something that you-“
Nope nope nope nope nope nope nope.
My brain turns off, my face goes blank. My fists clench from the inside of my sweatshirt sleeves, forcing them into closed-off nubs. I don’t want to think about this.
Then don’t think about it.
Vin realizes my silent freakout and quickly changes the subject, much to my relief.
“Gen’s doctor was talking with the gastroenterologist, and they think she may need another donation of marrow soon. So, you know, be prepared for them to find you sometime today and ask.”
I was wrong, it wasn’t a complete change of subject. To date I am the only member of our family who has survived the trifecta of cancers.
Don’t want to think about that. Pain.
Suffice it to say, my body has become something of a tool for the doctors to prolong the lives of my family members. Marrow transplants and blood transfusions have been required with more and more frequency in order to use my immunity to their best advantage.
I wish I could say it has been making a difference, and it has, but just not enough of one.
I clear my head by clearing my throat, and reestablish eye-contact, “Yeah, ok, that should be cool. Thanks for the heads up.”
He continues to watch me carefully. I wonder what he sees – I definitely didn’t put on makeup today, so I probably look way older or younger than my 26 years depending on who you ask. My long hair is haphazardly swept up into a messy bun, indicating my rush to get here and my inherent laziness for stupid things.
Poor Vince has had to grow up so quickly in the last three years, and my heart breaks every time I see him looking more mature than he has any right to look. First dad got sick, then me, then everyone else, and even though I made it out cancer free, I was dealt a whole new set of challenges.
Shhhhhhhhhhhhut the fuck up. Stop thinking.
“You look tired,” I tell him, “Go flirt with some nurses or something. Perk the fuck up.”
He grins at me and looks younger again, “Would if I could, but they’ve all caught on that I’m a bit underage.”
I scoff, “Their loss. Do me a favor though, will you?” I start rummaging through my giant-ass bag. Rifling past an ancient inhaler, some wet wipes, and a broken pen, I finally find my goal.
“Bring this to mom. Say it’s from me and ‘you’re welcome.’”
I hold out to him a small, cheap bottle of whiskey I picked up from a gas station this morning. He reaches for it. “Wait, one sec,” I say, and I snatch it back and take off the top. I turn my back to my dad deliberately, and give Vince a don’t tell him that I did this if for some reason he magically wakes up in the next five seconds look, and proceed to down a solid gulp.
Eyes watering, I replace the cap and hand it to him.
“Can I have some?” he asks, eyes crinkled with entertainment at my struggle.
“No,” I reply, “Only cancer folks get whisky if they’re underage. Sammy can have some if he’s up. Don’t let the med techs see it.”
Vince snorts, turns on his heel, and exits the room.
It’s crazy quiet. I turn my eyes back to the horrible rose painting and begin to wish I had bought a second bottle of whiskey. Upon reflection I surmise that the walls of this room may be the same color as whiskey.
Probably meant to be warm and inviting, but the bottom line is shit.
My cellphone buzzes in my back pocket. I pull it out with a flourish and mumble to Dad, “You don’t mind, do you?”
It’s a text from my bestie Desdemona. I love this bitch but her name gets me – she even has a massive, intimidating boyfriend named Orlando. I may have only read Shakespeare once, but I’ve been assured on multiple occasions that the parallel is hilarious.
MOANINGMONA: COMIN 2 U 2DAY. ORLO IS BRINGING SAMMY SOME OF THOSE HALF DONUT HALF CROISSANT SONS OF BITCHES AND WE MAKIN A DAY OF IT. TASTE TESTS FROM SEVERAL DONUT JOINTS. SAW ABT THE NOTRE DAME GAME, HOWS UR DAD TAKIN IT
Oh thank Christ. I could use some of this lady today.
ME: HE’S PISSED WHEREVER HE IS. BRING WHISKEY FOR MY COFFEE, I’M DUMB AND GAVE MY LAST BOTTLE TO MY MOM.
I grin to myself. Mona always knows just what to do. She’s been a fixture in my life since I was nineteen, and has a way of emanating that everything is going to be alright, even when you know it won’t.
Come to think of it, she’s probably waded through more shit for my family than for her own. And her family is huge.
MOANINGMONA: 10/4. ETA 30 MINS.
I replace the phone in my pocket without responding since she knows where to find me. With a sigh I heave my elbows onto the bed spread and lean on them, my chin balanced on my sleeve-enclosed fists.
“I should get you a CD player in here,” I muse out loud, “Get some Bruce Springsteen up in this bitch.”
Heart monitor beeps. Breathing machine wheezes.
Fuck. OK, 30 minutes.
I smooth the edges of his blankets for a few until it looks like Rain Man made the bed. Then I look out the window onto the tops of the other buildings visible on this dreary day in Cleveland. When nothing interesting emerges, I turn back to my dad and pretend to pick his nose. Where before that would have gotten my arm twisted, he now does nothing.
More beeps. More wheezing.
For god’s sake, turn the tv on.
The first channel is Jerry Springer, the next is the news. My father, being a well-informed, mature, proper sort of man would appreciate the news being on in his hospital room. I congratulate myself.
“Local law enforcement has teamed up with the FBI to further investigate our top news story today, the massive vandalism at the Library of Congress. We now go to our News Team 6 correspondent on the ground - Trisha?”
“Thank you, Tom. Our sources have just released to us photographs of the inside of the Congressional Library, where as you can see, the damage is extensive. Employees have likened it to tornado damage in its scope, and have claimed to officials that the vandalism itself occurred over the course of less than a minute. Needless to say, Library employees are currently being detained for further questioning due to the lack of validity of these claims. Tom?”
The hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention, and not from the news story I’m barely listening to. My eyebrows furrow in confusion as I feel the air in my dad’s hospital room change gradually. I can feel it getting colder, but also, almost, sharper. I glance towards the corner nearest the door, close to the rose painting.
The air in that corner seems to shimmer, almost as though it’s made of translucent jell-o rather than oxygen. I open and close my eyes rapidly, but the color of the air changes to become brighter, and I suddenly instinctively know that I’m not seeing things. Placing my hands bracingly on either arm of my chair, I squelch down the tiny egg of panic that has made itself known in my chest.
The jell-o corner has begun pulsing with a very bright, ethereal light, shining on everything else in the room and casting a shadow against all it touches. Finally, my brain seems to turn back on and my instincts with it – I jump up out of the armchair, spilling my bag from my lap so that its contents scatter beneath my father’s bed. I stride quickly around it, placing myself squarely between the fucked up atmospheric corner and Dad.
Almost as if on cue, something jets out of the now light-filled corner. A giant, holy shit giant, bird, zooms towards me purposefully, and I only just manage to duck while lashing out my arm in self-defense. Golden talons secure themselves around my arm in less than a second and give a mighty tug, throwing off my balance and making me fall forward. The bird is hovering in front of me, beating strong, powerful red and gold feathered wings while watching with intelligent amber eyes as I struggle. I lift my other hand up to pry off the talons, even while they cut deep into my skin and make me bleed.
In another brief handful of seconds, I’ve been dragged to the corner from which the creature sprung, my feet scrambling for purchase on the tiles and my free hand grasping wildly at its feathers. As its great head and beak break through the surface of the bright light of the portal, I realize that I’m losing this battle and being effectively kidnapped. I additionally realize that I’ve made next to no noise during the entirety of this encounter, and open my mouth to scream bloody murder, or at least throw some choice words at this asshole bird.
Behind me, the door opens. I hear someone yelling.
But before I’ve even inhaled to yell back, I’m engulfed by light.