The patient has forgotten what’s wrong with her.
Bone-white wallpaper reflecting in the grimy sunlight from the window that won’t open. A TV with its unplugged cord hanging limp. Beth’s pain is diffuse, more a smoke in her skin than a complaint. She’s been in the hospital room too long, dark and light alternating ever more rapidly, until they’ve become a strobe of days. The doctors poke and prod and worse. Some days—after a particularly bad treatment—the pain is replaced by an energy that propels Beth to stand, look for her clothes. She’ll leave, give up, or is it the other way around? Staying as surrender. She had that yesterday. The sight of the tile floor, its white practicality beneath her bare feet, pushed her back into the bed. Made to show blood, all of it. The floors, the ceiling.
A bell rings twice and Beth’s body responds like a conditioned dog, shuddering instead of salivating. Two bells means Dr. Sutherland.
Yet the doctor who comes in is one she’s never seen.
He’s young, with a distinguished gait that draws him to a stop beside her bed as if he’s on a stage. Beth supposes he is. His tag says Dr. Sandler. His white coat has a tiny blue stain on the lapel and she struggles to make a mnemonic out of that.
He tells her he’s joined the team diagnosing her. “We’re trying a new rotation system, so—surprise, Ms. Harding, it means you’re mine for the next two hours. Can I call you Beth?”
“Can I guess? You have a theory about me.”
“Not a theory. An hypothesis.” She already hates this doctor’s smile, the raised finger. The an. He settles into the bedside chair. “My speciality is space medicine.”
She thinks she’s heard wrong. “As in astronauts?”
“We need to talk about your environment. A lot of the changes that happen to astronauts in microgravity—the fluid distribution, gastrointestinal issues, bone changes—well, when I saw your file, it rang a bell for me. Hah, sorry. But really. It’s as if your body is not right for the environment it finds itself in.” Beth’s thoughts are already swirling like galaxies. “As if it needs space.” He pauses dramatically. A drama king, just as she figured. “You’re too heavy for this world.”
She can feel her thin butt against the sheet where the gown is open in the back. She cranes her neck to peer down at her body. Thirty-five, fashionably thin. No. Gaunt’s the only word.
“Too dense,” he corrects.
“What do you poke me with to cure that?” She’s already envisioning herself as a balloon, this Sandler bending over her with a hat-pin.
“No poke, you’ll be happy to hear. A pill.”
This is the thing. Beth has been diagnosed too many times. She waits for the bell, the sometimes complex pattern that tells her who will have her for the next hour, and she waits for the pronouncement. The same doctor might have a new idea. A new doctor will try something already done. Twice. She can’t list the theories, the absurd names. She’s a sexual headache, communicating hydrocephalus. One of the men, a specialist on funguses, explained to her how she had something candid growing in her. She has absence seizures, or a cavernous malformation.
The treatments, invariably painful, never result in anything. She’s come to suspect after such a long time that the doctors like the experimentation, that she’s a template for them, tabula rasa. Not empty, rather full of all the things they don’t know about but want to.
It’s made her breathe rage at times. How does the saying go? Too many doctors spoil the—well, everything. She’s not sure what they spoil. The air. Her very blood.
“I’ve had a lot of pills, Dr. Sandler.”
“The others don’t have it right. I know what’s wrong with you.”
Beth can feel the hostility creep like a film across her eyes. He sees it and sits back. Now she’s done it. “You know, you have to put something into this, Beth. You have to bring something to the table. A little faith. We’re all trying to help you, even if we fight about how.”
“I’m sure you are.”
It’s a mantra she’s heard as often as the bell rings. You have to want to get better. Part of it is the inner battle. She’s at war—undeclared—with her body. She keeps forgetting.
One more and you’ll leave.
The pill Sandler hands her is small and blue, like the stain on his collar. She’ll remember him now. She swallows it, obedient, and after several minutes she feels lighter. “What’s happening?”
“Try to stand.”
She does. Her feet feel the cold floor, but when she looks down her right foot and calf have disappeared.
There’s nothing below the knee.
This is insane, someone inside her whimpers. The panic shoots sparks through her, making her lighter, and her right hand vanishes. She can feel the ring she wears there that she bought years back at a flea market, a simple moonstone set in silver that she’s let tarnish almost black. Beth loves the ring for no reason, because it represents nothing, and now it’s been rendered invisible.
A scream burns in her throat but that’s all it does because sound can’t come out, she’s been made incompatible with oxygen, too large, too small, the fire is in her lungs now, where black holes suck in everything. Her body on its last oxygen is a bonfire. Berserk for air, she claws at her throat. This is it—they’ve finally killed her.
Sandler is frowning, then smiles as an actual light bulb goes on over his head. “Ah, right, the air molecules—”
With her last strength Beth swings her invisible fist and smashes the light bulb. Darkness grabs her.
She wakes up in the hyperbaric tank. She’s been here before. A quick glance—the ring is still there. Her body’s back, no thanks to the doctors. Post-hallucinatory, she’s a delight to herself, skin like flower petals holding her in. Scenting the anger. The pain is only a painful memory. A young woman helps her from the tank, too young to be a nurse, a girl really. A candy-striper—do they still call them that?
“I don’t want to be here anymore,” Beth tells her. Her own voice sounds like a stranger.
“We’ll get you back to your room.” The girl’s name-tag says Beth. She guides her into a wheelchair.
In her room, the girl Beth putters about, cleaning up. Something got smashed earlier. It’s a homey feeling for once, and Beth, drowsy in the bed, senses herself drift away.
The bell rings, two long, three short. Dr. Sondlund.
Dr. Sondlund has a very new theory, and the treatment is very painful.
Beth’s wife comes to visit her.
“My god, what happened to your hair? Boot camp?” Simone has brought nectarines and gin, though both are forbidden. She never holds anything in; the question spurts as she surreptitiously fills a shot glass for Beth and bends to kiss her. A kiss like life and blue skies. It makes Beth hold Simone longer, almost spilling her gin.
“Oh, I can’t remember what the theory was. Pour me some more of that, will you?” With her other hand Beth fingers her vaguely bald head. “Vasoconstriction. No, exploding head syndrome.” They had shown her the straps that would go around her ankles and shoot a low bolt of electricity through her, and then they shaved her head, though for the life of her she couldn’t see what that had to do with it. Beth had always loved her hair, the one shining thing about herself. When they shaved it off she’d wanted to cry, but didn’t. She screamed on the inside instead.
Simone’s expression says she’s already guessed how bad it was. “Don’t worry, it’s growing back.” She twines her fingers with Beth’s on her scalp. “Baby fuzz. I had a hand-me-down doll like you once. Loved that thing.” For a moment they’re quiet, contemplating their hands and each other.
In a way, Beth knows they give her this time. The hidden bell never rings during these visits. The sound beyond the grimy window—a muted roar that might be traffic or a mob shouting—seems to amplify, more real somehow, as if swooping closer. She can hold Simone’s hand and catch her breath and tell herself her hair will grow back the same. She’s never sure whether these reprieves are a blessing or torture because she’ll have to go back to it all afterwards. Whether someone’s waiting by the bell, giggling.
Simone is troubled today, Beth can tell. Maybe it’s the hair. Her wife’s always been the rebel between them, but Simone looks almost afraid to speak her next words. “Listen, Beth, what would you think about—” Simone knocks back her shot of gin. “About just… not doing any of it?”
Don’t confess how often you’ve thought about that. Don’t tell her about looking for your clothes. Beth sees her fist smashing through the hallucinated light bulb. A little lower and it would have been Sandler’s doctorly eyeball. Vitreous humor bursting against bone.
“Oh, Simone, I don’t want to be that way.” And she really doesn’t. It’s important to Beth—the rules and realities. She can act logically, accept there’s something wrong with her. Would it be fair anyway to leave them all in the dark, when she’s their mystery case? “I mean, I asked them for help, didn’t I?”
Simone leans in. “Did you?” For a moment everything’s dark, Simone’s dark eyes earnest and somehow wild with terror, the room suddenly a cave, the bed-sheets chains. “Beth, do you remember asking?”
Beth shakes her head no, a movement she prays is too tiny to reflect in the blank TV or the viewing glass in the door. What if she hadn’t asked?
Simone leans back. Just as suddenly the moment passes, the room lightens, sterile white again. “I just wish they’d hurry and find out what’s wrong with you. I’m tired of fluffing my own pillow at night.”
“I’ll be home soon enough. I’ll fluff it for you then.” Beth loves her for this, for accepting necessities. She grins, though it’s hard to, staring up at the ceiling, imagining the cave. “As many times as you can take it.”
The next doctor, Dr. Sollender, two long one short, tells her she’s bleeding into her subarachnoid space and of all the diagnoses it makes the most sense, all the doctors she’s seen like white-coated spiders hunching over her.
Beth’s husband comes to visit her. Her husband’s name is Simon, but everyone calls him Sy, something he started himself in his late twenties because he hated Simon with its connotations of Simon says. Sy has the reddest hair of anyone Beth’s ever known, almost burgundy. He swims at the natatorium three times a week; his signature scent has become chlorine, a scent tattoo.
“The kids miss you.”
Beth’s still getting over her treatment from the morning, a Dr. Sanderlin, who smiled sadly as he told her she was too light for the world and then proceeded to fill her with gas through a catheter. Her belly swelled until the navel disappeared. Inert, she began to sink through the bed, a hole opening for her toward the center of the earth. Dr. Sanderlin only stopped when she screamed and the alarmed candy-striper stuck her head in the door. Beth’s limbs are still spongy, the inflated flesh like sponge cake that hisses, outgassing when she presses it. They’ll eat her next, maybe. That’s when she’ll get up and go.
“I can’t really think straight right now,” she tells Sy.
“The house misses you.”
“You can take care of those things, Sy, I know.” I have faith in you. She really does. A memory claws its way upward, a shopping mall in December: they split up to find the toys the kids wanted more quickly and the crowds had exhausted Beth, to the point of hating it all, until she caught sight of Sy waiting at their meeting point. Tall, competent. He had seemed at that moment a flaming pillar of strength, flaming at the top at least.
Sy sighs. “The dog misses you.” He peers around the room, as if some detail might reveal to him what’s gone wrong, why it’s taking so long. Gazing everywhere but at Beth. As if it’s not her body that started it all. “Are you doing what they say?”
“Have you ever known me to be disobedient?”
His look in response is so loving it terrifies her.
She’s going to say it, she’s decided, Stop experimenting, but she only stares because it’s a woman doctor who enters the room this time. The tag says Dr. North. Dr. North has swept-up hair and sharp kindly hazel eyes with forty-something crows’ feet. But for a tiny blue stain on her lapel, ink or methyl dye, Dr. North is perfect, the kind of perfect Beth would fall in love with if she weren’t exhausted beyond thought.
For a long time they just talk.
“I know you’ve been a playing field, Beth.” Dr. North’s voice is melodious. “And I want to apologize for that, on behalf of them all. It is important to rule out certain things, but they tend to overdo it.”
“I’m an understanding person.”
“No. You don’t.” Beth likes North, but it’s an important point. Internist doesn’t mean they see inside you. “I don’t hold a grudge.”
North is silent a moment, acknowledging. “Your mind is clean, honey. Your body, not so much. Let me explain what my treatment is going to do. It’s called chelation.” From her coat pocket Dr. North produces a pill. A pill again. It’s a beautiful pill, much larger than Dr. Sandler’s, the exact color of North’s strawberry-brown hair. Beth wants to feel enthused, but it’s a pill again. “The chelation will rid your body of the excess debris it’s accumulated. And believe me, there’s a lot.”
“How does the pill know what’s debris?”
“The chelator knows.” With one manicured nail, Dr. North locates a tiny hinge on the pill Beth hadn’t noticed and opens the two halves. A gray worm, as thin as sewing thread, starts to climb over the side and North scoops it back in and closes the pill. For a moment Beth can’t breathe, visualizing the chelator chewing around inside her, but it’s necessary. Trust’s the thing.
“The chelator scours away anything that has no business being in you. If it works, then in several areas we should see a decreased body burden.”
Beth likes the sound of that. “It’s that simple?”
“Unburden yourself, sweetie.”
Beth swallows the pill and after five minutes the pain starts. As if her own bones have cast off splinters that are drilling out through her pores, the pain slices her from the inside. When she lifts her arms to look, moaning, she expects to see bone-white dots emerging from her skin, but instead every pore oozes red.
“Is this… blood? Am I sweating blood?”
“It’s all right. This is the way it should be.”
She struggles to her feet. Her hospital gown has pinked through, sticky-damp, and she slides it off her. Every limb has red runnels, her skin sweating scarlet pools onto the white floor. Made to show blood, all of it.
“This can’t be right!”
The chelator has worked its way back up her throat. Beth feels it wriggle. The moonstone on her ring is a blood moon where her hands and fingers flow. Her nipples ooze rust.
Dr. North’s eyes are bright with awe. “It works.”
“How much do you think I can lose, you—” Fool. Charlatan. No word is good enough. The pain chews every inch of her. The worm is in Beth’s mouth now and she spits the gray thread onto North’s coat, before the blood-loss fog of night rushes in and beheads her.
“You have two spleens.”
Dr. Sundaberg is a miniscule man with an oversized moustache. Beth can see over him to the door. The big wide world. There’s no end unless she makes one, she sees that now, but exhaustion has pickled her. And she doesn’t want to be that way. The one to run. She lies drained, the drip in the back of her hand siphoning energy rather than giving it.
“One spleen will have to come out. I’ve scheduled the surgery. Very routine.” Sundaberg shakes his head. “Oh, and two hearts, did I mention? Not so routine. I haven’t seen that one before. You really make it difficult for us, Ms. Harding. But we’ll cut the heart out of you too and then—”
She doesn’t hear the rest. It’s too much. “You can’t do that.” An icy voice, nothing like herself; the edge of an ice lake, cracks expanding all around.
“I can. I’m a cardiac surgeon.”
“I won’t let you.” She’s been good; she hasn’t hated, but she won’t let them cut her heart away and how would they know which is the original, what goes and what stays.
“No one needs two hearts, Ms. Harding.”
Maybe you love in more than one direction. In many directions. Infinities.
In one fluid move, Beth stands. Don’t look at your feet. From the back of her hand the drip rips out and blood spatters. Time to check out. She shoves Sundaberg aside and runs.
Outside her door the halls are endless, impossibly white, a concoction of hollow bones. She can’t remember ever seeing them. She runs down one, doglegs down another. Deserted. Every end is a dead-end. No doors. In the distance someone yells. She’ll find an emergency door, there has to be one. This is an emergency.
Halting for breath at an intersection, she catches the sound of footsteps.
She can identify each one of them, these patters and stomps, the steps of the experimenters. From the north, south, east, west they approach and the voices argue.
“Something growing in you—”
“Something dying in you—”
Run. There are no doors.
Around a corner comes the candy-striper Beth. She looks confused at the sight of the patient out of bed, too young not to believe in the rules others make. “Can I help you?”
The voices are close now.
Beth slips the moonstone ring from her finger. “Yes. Take this.” She presses it into the girl’s hand. “I want you to have it.”
“Oh—well, thank you. Does it mean anything?”
“Nothing at all.”
When the doctors arrive for her, the patient fights. Arms and legs writhing, eel pistons, but it’s no use. The howl is inhuman. The girl doesn’t watch it all. She was off work anyway, headed out. Sun bursts through the door as she opens it. The woman was nice to give her the ring, but there was something wrong with her, depressing. She hopes she’s never sick. The ring, flush with sunlight, feels good on her finger. It’s not a picture of anything and she likes it for that.
Rhonda Eikamp grew up in Texas and lives in Germany, where she works as a translator. Aside from a previous appearance in Apparition Lit, stories of hers can be found in Lackington’s, Enchanted Conversation and Riddled with Arrows, among others. She loves experiments, literary and otherwise, as long as they move the world forward and not backward.
Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash
Author of “You Can Check Out Any Time You Like”
What inspired you to write this story/poem?
A combination of wanting to say something about the times we’re in, where women’s rights seem to be moving backwards, and hearing “Hotel California” come on the radio right then. Beth sat up in bed in that mysterious clinic, tried to leave, and found she couldn’t.
What do you hope readers take from this story/poem?
Every reader takes something different from a story, but I would hope that a few readers might find themselves thinking more about issues of autonomy, why women’s bodies seem to be black boxes for some people. And maybe they are, but they’re recording everything.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story/poem has been through?
I was inspired by Apparition Lit’s theme and it was the first place I submitted the story. As a writer, you never know if you’ve said something close to your heart in a way that gets it across, and I’m grateful for Apparition for wanting to put it out there. As to edits – I’m not a pantser, I revise as I go, and every sentence has to be pretty much in its final form before I can go on to the next. So the number of edits is probably about the number of sentences in the story. Not the best method for everyone!
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
Everyone go out and grab a copy of Nox Pareidolia. No, I don’t have a story in it (I wish, she sighs). This is a huge anthology with top names that’s going to become a classic for the new weird and uncanny. I’m still processing Michael Wehunt’s story that makes the Lionel Richie song “Hello” spooky as hell.