The Grey Smudge
by David Sweeney
I’ve learned two things in the last three weeks. I find that even as I write this now I can hardly believe that it has only been three weeks. First of all, I’ve learned that I am lonely. My older brother stays in touch but both of our parents are dead. I’ve never really found time for a family, and as I get older I wonder how practical starting one would be. A woman turning thirty-nine is no spring chicken and having a child now could result in birth defects such as autism, Down syndrome, or something unimagined, later to be dubbed the “Carney Syndrome.” Also, after finding out my condition, I am not so sure a child is in the cards anymore. I’m not so sure life itself is in the cards anymore.
The second thing I’ve learned, and this is the important one, is that consciousness is like deep water, Mariana Trench sort of water. Everyone who is sane lives just above the swelling waves, skimming like a spider on the surface tension. It’s that tension that holds us in check, holds us into reality, and if that tension breaks… well Alice, you can find yourself tumbling down the rabbit hole.
It was a brain tumor; at least that is what the doctor told me. He had even shown me a picture of the inside of my head. I didn’t care much for the MRI machine he used to take that picture. It was an old machine that enclosed you fully, almost suffocating you. I couldn’t help but feel like I was being inserted into an oversized test tube, just a chemical compound being added for experimentation. At first glance, as I walked into the room, I thought he was putting me in an iron lung machine. I’ve only seen a few old images of those from the thirties or forties, but still, that was my first thought.
The image he showed me was nothing more than a grey smudge, about the size of a half dollar, and in the front side of my head. It looked like someone spilled a little milk onto a picture, like it was just an accident. Dr. Lewis informed me that this was an aggressive tumor, and it was pushing in on the backside of my frontal lobe. Sorry, I think I miswrote that. Not an aggressive tumor, it was a “horribly aggressive tumor.” As the various internet sites put it, the tumor wasn’t so much pushing into my frontal lobe, but rather growing roots like wild grass in my garden of thought.
I wasn’t sure how to take the news and to be honest, I felt like it was a joke. Like my life was some dumb fuck sitcom where the main character was told he had a brain tumor. He would have to tell his family, go through what would no doubt be an intense surgery, and after a few emotional episodes later, presto change-o, the series continues. Dr. Lewis didn’t laugh with me. In fact, he frowned in an oddly sympathetic way I had only seen once. It was at Mom’s funeral when Dad had made a wise crack.
“I guess I won’t have to watch out for Ron no more,” he said. He chuckled aloud but it was through wet gasping and sobs. Ron was the mailman and in the last few years of Mom’s life, her and Dad had a running joke about Mom sleeping with Ron. David, my older brother, put a hand on his shoulder and frowned with the same unhostile, yet sympathetic frown Dr. Lewis was giving me now. The joke wasn’t funny, even if it was meant to help deal with shock and grief. Sometimes shock and grief is all you have, like a deflating life jacket in a rough and dark sea.
“I’m afraid you don’t understand Ms. Carney,” he said. “This is a very aggressive tumor. Unless we do major brain surgery, you’re going to die. Within a year, if I were to make a guess. I could consult with a specialist for a more accurate time table but a year is probably generous. Truth be told, you’re lucky your symptoms manifested when they did. Even now this surgery is risky, but in two months it might be impossible.”
This news made me laugh harder. After all, I was the main character, wasn’t I? The main character to my own life anyways. Was he the main character to his own life? I suppose so, but through my eyes I am the lead actor, and the lead actor doesn’t die. However, the lead actor can experience trying times. This is the surface tension of the water I mentioned earlier. The tumor that was dug in like a disease-bearing tick behind my frontal lobe broke the tension like an overweight man cannonballing into the deep end.
There were a few symptoms that caused me to suspect something might be wrong. A few weeks before my first of many doctors’ appointments, I became irritable, sometimes openly hostile, I frequently lost my appetite and thus couldn’t finish a meal, and on occasion I became frightfully drowsy. Not a normal sort of drowsy. This was the sort of drowsy that causes people to bob their head up and down, fighting for consciousness before finally giving in to sleep and driving their car into the highway medium. These symptoms were the lesser of those I had experienced.
There were two symptoms that really took me from Defcon one to Defcon five and a half. I had, and this is to my best recollection of my intro to psychology course in undergrad, a fugue state. Not just one either, I had been having dozens of them. Sometimes I didn’t even notice them. I hesitate to call these fugue states because for some reason I feel like fugue states last longer. Mine however, were like little chops of time missing… more short term amnesia maybe. I could be in the kitchen washing dishes, and then I blink my eyes to find myself on the sofa watching the television.
Now I know that the lapses in time are weird enough, but I have to write down something that will sound even weirder. I noticed that every time one of these lapses happen and I end up watching television, and the channel is always set to one of those Christian televangelist guys. The sort that screamed that damnation is coming and the secret to fighting the devil back into hell was only found on his DVD, at the low rate of $19.99. I spent a fair amount of my down time reading, and if I was going to kick up the boob tube it was usually to catch the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory or The Voice. Christian televangelist is the last thing ever played on my TV. However, in the last few weeks it had been on frequently.
The first few times this happened I didn’t think much of it. I turned the channel on the TV and usually headed off to bed. I distinctly remember thinking that I must have nodded off at some point and leaned onto the remote, changing the channel. No big deal. The second and third time I think that rational pretty much stayed the same. But when this started happening in the middle of the day, well it became harder to dismiss. The time that really made me feel like I was sick was June 10th.
I remember it clearly because I think this was the first time since Mom had died that I had really been scared. When Dad passed it had been slow, and I had a lot of time to prepare for that one. Mom was quick, a stroke. There is no time to prepare for a stroke. I remember we were going out for lunch to celebrate David’s birthday. Well not really, his birthday was the Monday before, but we were both so busy that we couldn’t find time to connect. Anyways, we went out to a little diner called The Venture.
“Do you want me to set you up with Rick?” David asked. Rick was this old guy that worked under my brother at the warehouse. The job was mostly lifting heavy items and then loading them into a truck. Rick was in his sixties and David said he thought the job was going to make him “stroke out.” A phrase I didn’t much care for after Mom, but David was David and he was going to say what he was going to say.
“God no,” I said. “Find me someone whose balls aren’t sagging to their knees.”
“He’s a nice guy and just think, he’ll be dead soon and you can collect on the will.”
“Inheriting an old shack in the woods littered with empty beer cans isn’t worth sleeping with him,” I said, laughing. David could always make me laugh. I remember he was sitting across from me and chewing his gum obnoxiously like a child who had put a dozen pieces in his mouth at once.
“Come on, I bet he’ll be a two pump chump. Just a bang bang and a puff of dust,” he said. Both of us were laughing. David spit his gum out into his hand and then looked over his shoulder, twisted his head around, and then sarcastically looked under his shoe.
“Don’t do it David,” I said. Ever since we were little he would stick his gum to the bottom of whatever table we were seated at before our waiter brought us our order. It was his way of torturing me. My commands didn’t deter him. “What are you, three?” I asked as condescendingly as I could manage. As he lowered his hand below the table he said:
“Just think of this as job securi…” the sound of his hand slapping the underside of the table interrupted him.
“AND JESUS SAID ‘I CAST YOU OUT’” roared the television. I jumped so high that I actually landed on the edge of the sofa and slid onto the hard wood floor. I hit my tailbone so hard that the pain reverberated up into the center of my back. An old man was screaming scripture to a crowd of elderly adults. They looked captivated, the way people in a movie theater look sometimes, when the movie is really good… real suspenseful. I fumbled around and found the remote almost immediately. As I hit the volume down button I saw that the little bar that represented how loud Jesus would “cast them out” was filled the whole way. Full blast.
“Christ, what the fuck,” I shouted. I could hear a slow steady ring in my ears. The clock read fifteen past four in the afternoon. David and I had been out for lunch, not much past noon. My ears were ringing so loud that I figured I must have been listening to this holy garble for some time, hours maybe. After a call to David to find out that “yes” we had left around one and “yes” I had been acting normal when we left, I decided to make my first doctor’s appointment.
There was a week between the scan and the results. That is when the second serious symptom started happening. That is when she started happening. David started checking on me since I called to tell him that I was losing time. That I was going into “fugue states.” The doctor assumed it was psychological. Something about unprocessed grief with the death of my mother and father, but I thought that was bullshit. I processed it plenty. Sure, I was lonely, because sometimes I get too anxious to get out and meet people. That doesn’t mean I need a shrink and that doesn’t mean I am crazy. Nevertheless, he decided to do an MRI.
With all of that being said, this next part will make me seem crazy. I saw a girl in my home. I called the doctor almost immediately afterwards and although I withheld some details, he seemed confident that it was a hallucination. Instead of worrying about a psychological issue, he was more afraid that there might be physical factors at play. That was the sort of issue that you could stab at with a knife. Not some unconscious Freudian monster, coming out of the closet, claws bared, and the only cure was spilling your guts for the thing.
The girl was standing in my bathroom doorway as I sat at the sofa reading a book. I could only see her out of the corner of my eye, but she was clear. There was that moment where I actually thought, “my mind is playing tricks on me,” but as I sat there, refusing to give into whatever tricks the corner of the eye played, she didn’t go away. I could see her greasy long black hair, hanging down in matted knots and waves over her face. She was wearing black leggings and a leather biker’s jacket that was torn on one side, exposing one small breast. I don’t think she could have been more than twelve years old. Once it dawned on me that she wasn’t going away and that she might be more than my imagination, I jumped and spun to meet her, but she was gone before I could face her.
After that I hadn’t seen her again for about a week. However, I knew she was around. There were scratch marks on my bedroom door like some hungry, cold animal was trying to claw its way in. Also, on two separate occasions, I woke in the morning to find my refrigerator open along with all the windows in the house. I wasn’t sure what scared me more, the idea that this girl I’ve seen was doing this, or the thought that I was actually doing this in my fugue states. After I had received the results from the humorless doctor, who didn’t seem to understand that I was the main actor in the “Life of I,” I became sure that it was me. This fucking tumor was making me do shit in my sleep just like it made me sit down and watch televangelists during the day.
The week prior to my surgery I saw her again. This time I was the one in the bathroom. I was taking a shit. I know, not very lady like of me to put it that way, but this is my memoir so how about you take it easy on judging me? Okay? Anyways, I was sitting on the pot and looking through my Facebook newsfeed, using my iPhone. I did this often. In the twenty-first century even shitting doesn’t have to be boring.
I heard scratching coming from the living room. It was a slow scratching, like claws on wood. I wiped quickly and pulled up my pants. I figured it was David clawing at my front door like some feral asshole. The immaturity of that man knew no bounds, and he liked to screw with me from time to time. And between me and you, I sort of like it when he does. Adds flavor to my life.
When I opened the bathroom door I didn’t see David. I saw that girl again, only she was hunched down on all fours. I could see her finger tips, but not really. You see, her finger tips were gone. At least the skin anyways. I could see the skin run right up to where the finger nail should start and then it was just bone. The last knuckle of her finger was held on by nothing more than the tendon and small remnants of flesh that clung to the base of it. The tips of the bones were sharpened into points. She drug those bone razors on my hardwood floor like a rhinoceros might drag its foot in the dry African dirt before charging. I could see twines of hardwood peeling in small circles as she did so.
She stood upright as if to greet me. Small beads of blood dripped from her finger tips as her one small breast hung limp out of the leather jacket. Her thick black hair was knotted so badly on the right side I thought the only way to get the knots out would be by shaving it. One brownish red rib came through her jacket and curved perfectly into place, protecting her organs. Only it sat on the outside of her like some hellish body armor, constructed from her own bones.
I wanted to scream but then she looked at me and I think that shocked me into further silence. The black hair parted from her face and I could see that her eye lids were cut off. The dry blood crusted ridges were the only evidence that she had once owned eyelids. Inside of the sockets were red hot coals and ash. Her lips were pulled back at the corners of her mouth into a smile by two fishhooks that connected to something, somewhere in the back of her head like a grizzly sort of external dental brace. Her teeth were filed into fine points. She screamed a raspy, yet sharp ear piercing howl and ran at me. If hell storms, and it most certainly does, I think that is what the dry gales of wind would sound like as they tear through the valleys of starved souls.
I slammed the bathroom door, also screaming, and locked it. She hit the door with the force of a fully grown man. I put my back to the door. I could feel the boney tips of her fingers clawing as she shrieked like some rabid animal. I screamed back, telling her to go away as loud as I could, but she only tried to claw through the door harder. The force of her clawing rattled the door in a harsh vibration, like the reverberation of a deep but constant bass line. I did the only thing I could think of. I called David. I was screaming for him to come over, that something was inside my house trying to kill me.
She stopped clawing at the door only a few seconds before David arrived. If this were a horror movie, I would have opened the door and looked to see if she was still there. But this isn’t a horror movie, and even if I was the main character, I wasn’t going to open that fucking door. Even after David knocked and asked me to come out, I wouldn’t. After about an hour and much coaxing, I finally did. I cried into his shoulder for I’m not sure how long.
“I saw a girl, I saw a girl and she tried to kill me,” I wailed.
“No you didn’t,” he said to me. I looked at him in disbelief.
“Do you think I did this,” I said. We both looked around at the living room. There were scratches on the wall, and the spot where she had been on all fours was missing about half an inch of hard wood. That particular spot of the floor was more pail than the rest and looked almost like drift wood that washed up on the beach. I looked at the bathroom door behind me and saw that it had nearly been clawed through completely. She had almost got me.
“Yes,” he said sounding both frustrated and understanding. “I think you did and I think it’s that fucking tumor. We are going to get it taken care of. I promise you.”
“I saw her David. I know I saw her,” I wept into his shoulder and chest. In the background I could hear a televangelist on the TV.
“And God said ‘let there be light’ and I say praise god, for he is all which is holy.”
David stayed with me the next week. I saw her again, or at least I had thought I seen her. She was on the sidewalk, looking into my living room window, only being kept out by David’s presence. I hadn’t felt that need for a protector since I was a little girl. Yet here I am, a little girl all grown up who needs her big brother to keep the bullies away.
I’ve been admitted to the hospital the night before the surgery. They want to watch my diet and make sure I’m hydrated. Also, at some point tonight I think they have to shave my head. Surgery is first thing in the morning. This will be my last entry before the surgery, you’re all caught up so far. Wish me luck.
I can hear her. She is here now. I woke up, I think it’s sometime past midnight. David is sleeping in the chair next to me, but I can hear her breathe. It sounds wet, like she is drowning. I might call for a nurse but I’m not sure. I might wake David up, but he’ll tell me it’s in my head. I’m so scared. The doctor says the surgery is risky, but if the surgery gets rid of her, of it, then it’s worth it. I hope she doesn’t come in. Just one more night.
Surgery was a success! I seem to have trouble with motor skills on my left side. Walking feels a little weird, and my left hand tingles. I’ve been recovering for about two weeks now and I got to say, I feel good. No more fugue states. No more… of well… you know. I don’t have to have David stay with me anymore, and the best part is the doctor says I can go home in another week or so. I feel good, I really feel good. I can’t wait to get back to my old routine.
Did you ever notice how kids now days abbreviate everything? Lol, lmao, ttyl, brb, and so on. Well, I thought of my own. Kyp. It means keep you posted. I was writing this down to capture my experience. Now that the experience is over, I find that I miss writing to you. Now, I guess this is sort of a journal. Kyp!
Heyo! I’m back again and it’s going to be my first night back home. You know, for all the grief he gives me David is such a sweetheart. He replaced my bathroom door and even the boards that it… I mean, I had clawed up. I still don’t like thinking about that, the state that I was in to do that. Anyways! I am super excited to read a book and cook my own food for a change. Hospital food starts to eat you from the inside out after a while. I think that is their plan. Either you get better quick or die off from the food. Kyp!
I know… listen… I know I’m better. They took out the tumor…that fucking grey smudge, spilt milk asshole thing. I know they did. The doctor even offered to show it to me. I suppose some people would want to see the tumor that almost killed them, but I don’t have the stomach for that sort of thing, so I didn’t… maybe I should have. But it’s out, it’s gone, I am cured!
I say that, but as I sit here in bed… I can hear her. She’s in the living room. I can hear her breathing her wet breath. I can smell her. I can smell her burning rot. She is here… I left my phone in the kitchen, and the landline doesn’t run in here. I can’t call David. My door isn’t locked… I didn’t even think to lock it. I thought this was over. I thought all of this was fucking over! Maybe they missed part of the tumor… or maybe they took something out that I needed. I would get up and lock my door, but I’m afraid she might hear me. She might race me to the door. My leg isn’t the best since the surgery. I can’t beat her there. All I can do is lay here. Lay here and hope she doesn’t find her way in. She can’t see, after all, she has burning coals for eyes. I’m going to put my journal under my bed. God… I hope she doesn’t find her way in here. If she gets me… I guess this will be the record. Wish me luck… Kyp.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright David Sweeney 2017