My Trouble With Fairies

sparrow-in-the-tree

Growing up, whenever my brother would get hurt, I’d blame it on my fairy friends. My parents never believed me and I’d get punished. It didn’t help that my brother said I was the one who pushed him or punched him or scratched him. No matter how much I protested, at the end of it all, I was the one who got in trouble. So, at a young age, I learned I was the only one who could see the fairies.

For some time, it was a mixed blessing. Having friends only I could see meant there wasn’t anyone who could tell them to leave me alone or that they had to go home because I needed to go to bed. It was nice to never feel lonely. The issue, unfortunately, was that the fairies were mischievous. They’d rarely listen when I told them to stop doing something. They would just laugh and flit about and continue with their fun.

Most of the time it was harmless, albeit obnoxious. They’d flutter their little wings under someone’s nose and make them sneeze or they’d knock someone’s elbow against a glass and spill their drink all over the table. That kind of thing. On occasion, however, their activities were more serious – especially when it came to my older brother.

The fairies didn’t like how Todd would talk to me. I didn’t think much of it; I was the younger sister and he was my bratty teenage brother. I just thought that’s how the world worked. The fairies begged to differ. And they wanted to make it known. That’s why they’d scratch and hit him. It went on for years as his treatment of me got worse and worse.

On a Saturday morning when I was in bed being lazy and listening to the rain fall outside, I heard a muffled scream from Todd’s room on the other side of the wall. The scream was followed by retching and gagging and Todd streaked past my doorway and into the bathroom where he vomited loudly and often. My parents noticed the commotion and came to his aid. Mom’s shout was loud enough to cut through the sound of Todd’s puking and Dad swore. That scared me. He never did that.

I stood in the doorway while the fairies giggled and floated in an iridescent orbit around my head. I knew whatever they’d done to my brother had to be worse than things they’d done in the past. My father father stormed from the bathroom and entered Todd’s room. He came back a second later with his fist full of something. He stood in front of me, eyes glazed with rage and disgust.

“What the hell is wrong with you?,” he hissed, and opened his hand.

I shrieked with surprise and disgust when I saw what he held. It was the body of a small bird, a sparrow, maybe, that was cut up and bleeding. Dislodged feathers stuck to the blood and greasy white discharge oozing from its truncated rear half.

“Do you have any idea how sick your brother can get from this?,” Dad asked. Behind his rage was a tone of deep concern and even fear. His fear only amplified my own.

“I…I didn’t,” I stammered, and my eyes darted back and forth as I followed the hysterically-laughing fairies as they swept back and forth across the carnage in my father’s palm.

“Stay here,” Dad ordered.

“But…,” I tried to interject, but he grabbed my shoulder hard with his free hand and held me against the doorframe. The din of giggles stopped. I heard them whispering amongst themselves.

Dad leaned down and pushed his forehead against mine. When he spoke, his words were clear and smelled like the coffee he’d been drinking.

“You are not to say another word. You are not to leave this room. I am taking your brother to the doctor, and if your mother tells me you’ve said anything or set foot outside, I promise you will regret it.”

He squeezed my shoulder harder and I winced and tried to fight back tears. He stared at me for a full ten seconds without saying anything, then he let me go.

Dad turned the corner to head downstairs and I saw what was coming but was too afraid to speak up. As he started down, I saw the fairies hurl themselves against the bottom of his foot before it had made contact with the first step. His foot landed awkwardly and his ankle twisted, sending him face first onto the uncarpeted wooden steps. The sound of his face impacting with the stairs seemed louder than anything I’d ever heard.

Mom called from the bathroom where she was still attending to Todd. Dad didn’t answer. I peeked around the corner. He was on his belly at the bottom of the stairs. He was moaning and weakly flailing his arms against the hardwood. His legs were still on the steps, but they didn’t move at all.

Mom came out and down the hall, glaring at me before turning the corner and seeing her husband. She gasped and rushed to his aid. Not wanting to make them any angrier than they already were, I turned back into my room. I winced when I put pressure on my right ankle and limped back to bed, where I sat and stared at the fairies.

They were laughing again. They flew like a shimmering, animated constellation around the room, weaving in and out of closets and drawers and galoshes. My ankle throbbed. The fairies formed a line in the air and held the formation for a moment, then they made a beeline for the dusty corner behind my dresser. They burst into peals of uproarious laughter and blinked out of view.

As the faint sound of sirens in the distance entered my ears, I gingerly walked to where the fairies had gone. I noticed a tiny feather. And then another. And another. When I reached the dresser and peered behind it, there was a clump of feathers and some blood right next to a small knife from our kitchen. I felt a pang of confused, disconnected recognition, but was shocked back to my senses by a fresh wave of pain from my foot and ankle.

I sat on the floor with my back against the dresser. I pulled up the leg of my pajama pants and examined my ankle. It was swollen and red. The top of my foot hurt, too, and I drew my knee to my chest so I could get a closer look. Again, I felt confused and out of place. The sirens were loud and close but I wasn’t paying attention to them anymore.

I looked around for my fairy friends, but they were nowhere to be seen. For the first time, when I desperately needed to ask them a question, they were gone. My confusion grew teeth and fear pricked the skin of my back and neck. My ankle hurt, but that wasn’t what was scaring me. It was my foot. Because even though I watched the fairies trip my dad, for some reason, the imprint of his work boot was etched in the skin of my foot – and my heel was stippled with tiny handprints.

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Why I Don’t Hike Anymore

leaves

I don’t want to write about this. I’ll try to keep it short. My doctor suggested I put it down on paper, though, so he can have a better idea of how everything happened. He’d never seen such a thing in his 30 years of practicing medicine and he actually wants to talk about my case at an ENT conference next summer. So why am I posting the story here? Because if I have to suffer through writing it, you might as well suffer through reading it. Yeah, I’m a prick.

I’d always been an avid outdoorsman. Hiking was my thing. After my divorce, I did what I thought I had to do: quit my job and hike the whole Appalachian Trail. You know how your coaches always used to say “walk it off” after a bad hit? Well, after being sodomized by the vicious c**k of alimony, I needed the longest walk I could think of. So off I went.

It was March when I started and I was pretty damn cold for a while, but I knew it’d warm up as the hike progressed. Contrary to the wishes of my friends, I’d insisted on going alone. I was an experienced hiker. No, I hadn’t gone such a great distance before, but I was definitely in good physical shape and knew quite a bit about outdoorsy stuff from spending time in the woods with my father before he died.

To be honest, the first six weeks bored the living s**t out of me. Yes, the scenery was beautiful. Yes, the feeling of accomplishment I expected to experience at the end of it all would be memorable. Still, it sucked. I found myself walking faster and faster just hoping to finish a day or so earlier so I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore.

On cue, when my boredom had reached its peak, I got an awful cold. It was a nightmare. It seemed like every ten steps I had to stop, pick up an old leaf, and blow a gallon of snot out of me. For those who are laughing at me right now and saying I’m stupid for not just blowing out snot rockets, hey – I’m glad I could give you something to laugh at. But the reality of the situation was that the s**t up my nose was like rubber cement. The one time I tried to blow without a leaf, I got a trail of yellow slime going from my left nostril to my knee. So thanks for laughing, but f**k off.

Anyway, as the days went by and I’d Hansel-and-Gretel’ed the forest with mucousy leaves, I started to get concerned that my cold hadn’t gotten any better. Quite the contrary. My sinuses were packed with snot. And I mean packed; you know when you’re in bed and you put your head on one side and you can feel your sinuses drain a little and get some relief? There was no relief. And every few minutes, I was blowing progressively-thicker goo onto anything unfortunate enough to get within my reach.

There was one morning in early May, after I’d been sick for two straight weeks, that I knew I needed to hop off the trail and find a local clinic. I was fairly sure I had a sinus infection and it was severely affecting the amount of walking I wanted to do every day. I took a turn off the trail and in the general direction of a town.

The map indicated I’d be off the trail for almost a day. It wasn’t the ideal situation, but I really wanted to get some antibiotics. The way out was through. A few miles in, though, the pressure in my sinuses turned into blinding pain. I had to sit down and rest. There was no way I’d be able to get to town before dark at the rate I was going. I did my best to blow out the horrible contents of my nose, which was now dark yellow and as viscous as chewing gum.

I used my fingers to pull out as much as I could. There was almost no relief, though. Most of it was deep in my sinuses and no amount of picking or blowing was going to get it out. I wandered over to a small stream to wash my disgusting hands. As I pulled the slime off my fingers, I caught sight of something that caused me to gasp. I looked under my index fingernail. Buried inside the compacted dirt and snot was the unmistakable segmented body of a white worm.

Now I was really, really freaked out. I dragged the piece out from under my nail and inspected it. It wasn’t a whole worm. It looked like my fingernail had broken off either the front or back end of the thing. The pressure in my sinuses only intensified as my panic grew. I told myself the piece of worm had to have been under my nail before it I picked my nose. It was futile consolation. Every night for the last couple nights I’d heard what I thought was the moving and settling of my sinus contents. Now I knew. I’d heard them moving around. And that realization was where I lost it.

Rather than trying to blow out, I snorted the contents backward, trying to get them into my throat so I could spit them out. After a couple powerful snorts, I felt something hit the back of my throat. I spit it onto the ground. On the brown pine needles, a fat white worm half the size of my pinky wriggled in yellow snot. I screamed.

Over and over I tried to spit more of them out. Only one came. With the slightly diminished sinus pressure, I could feel them for what they were. This was the first time they’d been able to make any significant movement because they’d been so tightly packed together. But now, they wandered. I felt their thick bodies crawling around behind my nose and under my eyes. I started to hyperventilate when I felt one start to slither down into my nostril. I scratched and pulled at it with my fingers, but it wouldn’t budge. It just sat there, writhing.

The sensation was indescribably horrific and I needed the f*****g thing out of me. I squeezed my nostrils together with my hand as hard as I could. I felt the worm burst inside and a torrent of gray sludge poured out of its destroyed body. Now deflated, I could pull its body all the way out. It was almost three inches long. It slapped on the forest floor like a used condom.

While the terror I felt was immeasurable, having expelled three worms from my sinuses gave me more relief from the pressure than I could have imagined. I still could feel others slithering inside me, though. But my breathing was much, much better. I started to run toward town. I didn’t stop until I got there.

There isn’t much else to say. I got to the main road and a kind soul let me hitch a ride to the clinic in the back of his pickup. The local doctor was pretty surprised, but he didn’t seem to think I was in any danger. He asked where I lived, did a little research, and found a highly-accomplished ear, nose, and throat specialist only a couple miles from my house. Later that night I was on a plane back home. The pressure change of the airplane wreaked havoc on my sinuses and it felt like the worms inside were throwing party, but I managed to stay somewhat composed. The guy next to me didn’t particularly like how I kept snorting up phlegm and spitting it into the puke bag.

The next morning, I met with the ENT guy. He did a whole bunch of stuff with small cameras that made me gag and he made a lot of sounds like he was absolutely fascinated by what was in me. After he pulled seven of the things out of me and warned that there are probably eggs inside that’ll need to get dealt with sooner or later, he tried to figure out how they’d gotten there. It only took about 20 minutes before he concluded I’d gotten their eggs in my nose from one of the leaves I’d used as a tissue when I first got the cold. Lovely.

So that’s that. Over the next couple weeks, he did some stuff to clean out my sinuses and gave me some pills he said would kill anything else that might be up there. Last week, he asked me to write this s**t so he could share it with his ENT buddies who were really jealous he’d gotten to treat such a cool case. Well, hi guys. Every time I blow my nose I expect to see a fat worm looking up at me from the tissue asking why I evicted it from its home. Have a great conference.

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My dad was a safety officer at Chernobyl during the meltdown. Before he died last year, he told me about something he saw that night. I can’t keep it to myself.

chernobyl

I won’t give a long backstory because it doesn’t matter. Basically, he got the job through a former schoolmate of his who worked in some mid-level Party position. Dad was down on his luck at the time and Egor happened to see him at a local tavern. They got to talking, and Egor pulled some strings and gave him the position. Didn’t matter that he wasn’t qualified. “Half the guys aren’t,” he was told.

Anyway, dad started working there in 1984 and did a pretty good job. He did what he was told; most of it was just checking dial readouts and making sure pipes were sealed and whatnot. In late 1985 and early 1986, he started noticing far more Party representatives coming in and out of the plant. Usually the visits were limited to compliance officers and hazardous materials supervisors when radioactive material was moved in or out. But these weren’t plant specialists. They looked like they were Politburo. He told me he recognized a couple of them from televised speeches, but he didn’t remember the names. He just knew they were high ranking.

On the night of the meltdown, Dad was doing his usual valve and dial checks when Politburo members, accompanied by soldiers with kalashnikovs, streamed down the hall toward the reactor area. The soldiers were wearing radiation suits. The Party members weren’t. He tagged along a few tens of meters away and went up on a high catwalk where he could see all of them. They crowded around the cooling pools. Dad made an effort to act as if he was staring at the pressure readouts in front of him, vaguely noticing they were rising as he watched.

This was around the point when the lights cut out. Apparently this wasn’t abnormal for the plant; the electrical systems were under maintained and all the electricians on staff were tasked with more critical work. Even with the lights not working, Cherenkov radiation cast its characteristic blue glow over the group and illuminated the politicians and soldiers. The water in the pool started moving.

Now, dad wasn’t a nuclear engineer. Still, he knew whatever was happening in the pool was abnormal. He’d been by the area plenty of times and never once did the water move like it did right then. It sloshed with turbidity and looked like it was coming to a rolling boil. He glanced at the dials in front of him and saw the temperature and pressure in the loop system was dramatically higher than it should’ve been. As he was beginning to sprint across the catwalk toward the nearest alarm station, he saw something that made him stop.

What he told me didn’t make much sense at first. You have to figure someone running at a dead sprint to pull an emergency alarm at a nuclear power plant wouldn’t stop for anything. But he stopped. And he stared. Something had floated to the top of the boiling water. The way he described it, it was dark, grayish red, almost shaped like a person, but much bigger and dreadfully deformed. It floated, facedown, in the pool. The Party members didn’t react but the soldiers raised their rifles at the thing until one of the politicians barked an order at them to stand down.

A moment or two later, the thing crawled out of the pool and raised itself on thick legs to stand before the gathered crowd. What dad said he remembered most about the thing was its head. It sat directly on its lopsided shoulders and it had no eyes, no nose, no ears. All that was there was a gaping hole. Not even a mouth, but a hole. And inside, the same blue glow from the pool shone out onto the faces of the people surrounding it.

Someone else in the plant must’ve noticed the temperature and pressure abnormalities and pulled the alarm, because sirens began to blare and diesel generators were galvanized into action to force the cooling cycle into overdrive. None of that mattered to dad, though. He said the thing approached the soldiers, one by one, and without any of them putting up a fight, it pressed the hole in its face against the top of each of their heads and they started to dissolve. First their suits melted, then their skin began to blister and char. The thing moved its maw downward until it nearly reached their legs, which dropped to the ground in a smoldering heap.

It then did the same to the assembled Politburo. All but one. She stood in the middle of a pile of steaming legs and hips and crotches and stared at the atrocity. Then, she screamed at it. It’s something dad said he’s repeated to himself every day since. “залить соль на почве.” Salt the earth. As the words left her mouth, the geiger counter dad was forced to carry with him at all times exploded into life at the same instant the politician burst into flames. He could swear she smiled as she burned.

All this was finally enough for dad to make a break for it. He knew he’d been irradiated badly, but he took some solace in the fact the ticks from the counter slowed quickly as he left the pool area. Right before he was clear of the room, he took one last glimpse at the thing. It had begun to melt. As soon as its body began pouring through the metal grate, the water below erupted into a mass of superheated steam. Dad avoided being scalded to death by about half a second when he turned the corner and slammed the door behind him.

The rest of the meltdown played out more or less like it was eventually reported. Dad was able to get out before the main explosion. He lived with the profound guilt of running by his colleagues who still didn’t know something truly catastrophic was about to happen. He believed his thyroid cancer was payback for his indifference toward them during his escape.

The iconic photograph of the radioactive “elephant’s foot” in the basement of the power plant stood, framed, on his dresser for the rest of his life. As he told me this story, he confessed he kept it to remind him of the implications of the politician’s words before she was devoured by flames. “That thing will render the area around it uninhabitable for a hundred years,” he sighed. “And it’s melting through the ground, even today. If it hits groundwater, it’ll explode like a dirty bomb and make the disaster in ‘86 look like a firecracker. Russia, Europe, North Africa. All irradiated.”

He died a couple days after he shared his experience with me. I just have no idea what to do with it all. Obviously, he could’ve made the whole thing up. But I don’t know why he would. He doesn’t have anything to gain now that he’s dead. Maybe some of the other survivors or their kids can corroborate parts of what he said, maybe they can’t. Either way, if it’s true, there is so much more going on with that disaster than we’ve been told. Even now, as that radioactive slag melts into the ground, dad’s story almost makes it sound like the meltdown was just a precursor to something far worse. Something plotted. Please, if anyone can give some advice or insight, it would be appreciated. I don’t want what he told me to be true, but “залить соль на почве” terrifies me more than I can bear.

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To Adore

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During the latter half of her pregnancy, Eileen was plagued by nightmares. They were monstrous and intrusive; disruptive to the point where she’d been unable to continue working because of the stress of it all. The trouble began when Eileen saw the sonogram image of our baby. Our daughter, we learned. While neither the obstetrician nor I could see what Eileen claimed to, she was convinced it was something evil. Something non-human. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get her to shake that feeling. And that’s when the nightmares began.

She’d say she heard the baby laughing inside her. Laughing and screaming. Eileen would wake up in a panic and describe hideous scenes of a deformed monstrosity erupting from her body and devouring humankind. I could tell my wife was traumatized, but there was nothing I could do except hold her until the hysterical sobbing stopped.

At the request of her parents, Eileen began seeing a therapist. The therapy seemed to take the edge off her daily trauma, but the nightmares persisted. I’d wake up to Eileen thrashing and clawing at herself, drawing deep gashes into the stretched flesh of her belly while screaming with profound terror at whatever was tormenting her. She began wearing mittens to bed to diminish the severity of the assaults on herself. They succeeded in stopping the scratches, but the horror continued unabated.

We were both counting down the days to her delivery date. Most parents do this with joyful anticipation. Our anticipation was anything but. Eileen had grown resigned to the idea that she was about to bring something evil into the world. I was secretly dreading how Eileen would treat the baby. She’d told me many times how much she hated her; how she’d been praying our daughter would arrive stillborn and unable to hurt anyone.

On June 30th, Eileen went into labor. I could tell she was in excruciating pain, but she never cried out or complained. Her jaw was set with determination and her eyes had locked on a point in space only she could see. Throughout the whole ordeal, she didn’t utter a word. 17 hours later, on July 1st, our daughter was born. Dominique Alyssa Texier.

And she was perfect.

When small, cooing Dominique was brought up for Eileen to hold, she stared at her for long, silent minutes. She blinked over and over, as if trying to determine if what she was seeing was real or imaginary. Dominique reached out and touched Eileen’s nose. The tension broke. Eileen began to cry. It wasn’t the terrified bleating that had filled our last four months. These were tears of infinite relief. Eileen held Dominique and kissed the top of her head. At that instant, I knew my wife loved our daughter. And I loved them both infinitely.

Two days later, the three of us went home. Our love for our newborn daughter has only deepened. The feeling is indescribable. I’d always heard parents say they’d do anything for their children, but I could never understand the ferocity of that dedication until Dominique came into our lives.

Her wide, gray eyes stare into ours with precocious intensity. As the hours and days of Dominique’s new life accumulate, I can feel our dedication and reverence growing. When she smiles at us, which is more often than not, her tiny, straight teeth – another example of her precociousness – gleam with a radiance that reflects the brightness of her parents’ sentiment.

Dominique bathes in the adoration pouring from the two pairs of eyes observing her every waking moment. Every need she has, however infinitesimal, is met. Every action she performs, however inconsequential, is celebrated. Even now, as we watch her breastfeed, it seems like the most beautiful, natural act in the world. The only concern we have is what we should do once she finishes eating the second one.

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I’ll be dead soon, so my doctors asked that I tell my story as a cautionary tale. I don’t want other girls to be sick like I am.

cesium

Teeny Tiny

When I was little, Mom used to hold me and say stuff like, “Oh Katie, you fit so perfectly on my lap! You’re so teeny-tiny!” I loved it. She’d keep me warm and hug me and I felt so great. I’d always go to Mom if I felt sad or scared and she’d just scoop me up, saying “what’s wrong, my teeny-tiny girl?” and I’d tell her what was making me upset and she’d always always always make it all better.

The most vivid memory I have was the day I turned 10. It wasn’t of my party, which I vaguely remember being great, it wasn’t the presents, some of which I still have, but it was when Mom had me in her lap that night and had tears in her eyes and said to Dad, “Katie’s getting to be a big girl, huh?” I don’t remember what my dad said, but there was no denying it: I wasn’t her teeny-tiny girl anymore.

At 10 years old, I was about 4’10”, maybe 100 pounds. I was growing fast. Both my parents are tall. I remember being scared. The scale kept going up, and by the time I was 11 I was 5’2”, 120 pounds and I started getting b***s. At that point, when I was sad, mom would hug me tight and say the right things, but it all felt different. She never cradled me. She never had me in her lap. I felt cold and lonely even though I was never really cold or lonely. I just wanted to be closer to her like I was when I was little. So I decided to get little again.

Mom started to notice when I pushed around my food on the plate, trying to pile it up on one side to make it look like I ate more than I really did. “You’re a growing girl,” she said, kindly but firmly. “You need to eat.” I couldn’t leave the table until I was done.

That night after dinner, I remember lying on my back on the bed, staring at the ceiling and feeling the food in my stomach. Mom’s words “you’re a growing girl” echoed in my mind and I felt so sick that I ran into the bathroom and threw up. I was really glad I had my own bathroom so they couldn’t hear me puking. After I was done, I felt so much better. Lighter and smaller, even.

Mom was so happy to see me eating normally again. She worried aloud that I might be getting the flu, so seeing me chowing down like my old self pushed those worries right out of her head. What she didn’t see was how I went to bed afterward and while the bathwater ran I was throwing it all up. I did this every day for years.

One of the sad truths about throwing up your meals is you don’t lose all that much weight. I actually gained more. Sure, I’d get rid of what I’d eaten, but probably twice a week I’d be lying in bed, wide awake, fingering my collar bones, hip bones, and ribs, and obsessing over food. Something inside me would snap, and I’d run to the fridge or the cabinets and eat until I felt like I was bursting. Then, exhausted, I’d go back upstairs and pass out on my bed. Calorie-for-calorie, after those twice-weekly binges I was eating more than I would if I was healthy. Except I really, really wasn’t healthy. And nobody knew.

All this built up to the last few months after I graduated high school. I was 5’11, 175 pounds. 17 years old. There was absolutely nothing I hated more than my body. I was constantly lonely and wanted to try to take my mind off it all. I decided to get a job. When I told Mom I found a position at a place that recycles old medical gear, she was really proud of me for taking the initiative. It was bittersweet; I knew she was starting to see me as an adult. Not her teeny-tiny girl. I felt like a complete and utter failure.

The recycling place where I worked dismantled big machines that hospitals used and sold the parts. I was the receptionist. I took phone calls and helped set up deliveries. The people I worked with were really nice and after a few weeks they gave me a key so I could get there early and have coffee ready and work orders printed out. One night, after everyone left, I went back there and let myself in. I still feel bad about breaking their trust.

A couple days earlier my coworkers were bringing in an old machine. They all were wearing heavy gloves and had on breathing gear like scuba divers. When they were done, I asked what it was. Apparently it was something hospitals use to give radiation therapy to cancer patients. I didn’t know too much about that, so when I got home I went on Wikipedia and did a lot of research and then I got my idea.

When I let myself in that night, the place was empty. I made a beeline for where they had that radiation therapy machine and I investigated it. Most of it was completely dismantled. What I was looking for was conveniently labeled and brightly marked in a massive lead container. It took me a while to get the cover off. Lead’s so heavy! But after I did, I saw a round metal part that looked like a wheel. I picked it up, rotated the mechanism, and it opened a little window in the front. A faint blue light was inside. I held it up to my eye and looked in. Nothing but that light. I thought it was probably what I was looking for.

I brought the object home with me and locked the door of my bedroom. I worked to pry the thing open with a screwdriver but it seemed locked from the inside. Eventually I got frustrated and I turned the wheel again to open the window and pushed my screwdriver into the blue stuff and tried scooping it out. It turned out to be pretty soft. A lot of it broke as I poked it with the screwdriver, and when I turned the wheel upside down, the pieces tumbled out onto my desk. Now I could see how pretty it was. It was like chunks of glowing blue clay and sand. I gathered it up as best I could and put it away, save for the little bit I was going to use tonight.

One of the things I’d read about radiation therapy was that it made the poor people with cancer really skinny. They just totally lost their appetites. I couldn’t believe it was true. I’d always had such a big appetite. I kept telling myself I need to be really careful when I take this stuff because if I get too much of the radiation I could get cancer myself. I took a pinch of the blue clay, put it in my mouth, and swallowed it with a gulp of water. It felt warm going down even though the water was cold. Since I’d gotten home from the recycling place I’d been pretty warm, in fact. Cozy. Like a little puppy under a blanket.

That night I woke up sweating worse than I’d ever sweated in my life. The bed was totally soaked. Gross. Water weight wasn’t really what I wanted to lose, but it was better than nothing. I took a shower and changed the sheets and went back to bed. My stomach ached a little.

When I woke up the next morning, my stomach hurt and I threw up a couple times. But, I wasn’t even remotely hungry. That alone made the pain in my tummy pretty much go away. I didn’t need to eat! Mom asked if I was bringing leftovers to work from last night’s dinner and I lied and said we were going to get a pizza. I hate lying to Mom, but I didn’t want her to worry. There was no need to tell her I wasn’t hungry. At work, they’d finished disassembling the machine and started sending it out to wherever they send those things. I’d been really careful to put the canister back exactly as I left it. No one checked to see if the little wheel was still there.

The next few days were uneventful, aside from my stomach ache getting worse and having to puke once or twice. I’d barely eaten anything since I started taking the radiation medicine. Whenever I got woozy from lack of food I ate an apple or a fat-free yogurt and I was fine. I was still sweating a lot. When I got on the scale, it said 168.

After a week of eating nearly nothing and faithfully taking my radiation medicine nightly, my stomach ache got really, really bad. I’d stopped throwing up, but this time it felt like I needed to go to the bathroom. I went, and it was awful. There was so much – I was shocked. I’d apparently eaten and kept down more than I thought. I got on the scale after, though, and that helped me feel a lot better. 161.

Over the next couple days, one or two people told me how pretty I looked. They asked me if I lost weight and I said yeah, maybe a few pounds. I beamed. Over my whole adolescence I’d done nothing but get bigger. Now, finally, I was shrinking and on the way to teeny-tiny. I didn’t feel too great, though. My tummy was constantly having me run to the bathroom and it still hurt afterwards. I figured I was getting rid of all the extra fat. 158.

I was in the shower about 10 days after I started taking the medicine and I was horrified to see some of my hair coming out. That was bad. Really, really, really bad. I stopped washing it immediately and let just the water rinse away the remainder of the shampoo. I got out of the shower and took like an hour blow drying my hair because I was too scared to use a towel that might pull more out. When the mirror was unfogged and my hair was dry, I checked to see how noticeable it was. There was a good-sized patch of bare, red scalp about 2” wide above my left ear. I pushed the hair around it to cover the patch. Some more fell out. It had to be a nutritional deficiency from all the meals I’d been missing. I put on my Titans hat and got dressed. When I brushed my teeth I noticed a little blood in the sink. I made a note to get some multivitamins after work.

I didn’t shower the next day because when I woke up that morning, there was more hair on my pillow. My scalp was getting pretty visible. It looked prickly and raw but it didn’t hurt. Since I was off work I stayed at home and looked online for all the nutritional deficiencies that might cause my hair to fall out and my gums to bleed. Most of the ones were covered by my multivitamin, so I tripled the amount I took just to be on the safe side. I had to go to the bathroom five times during the 15 hours I was awake. By the last time I was incredibly light-headed and so thirsty. I weighed myself before I started downing water and my radiation medicine. 150. The medicine helped me lose 25 pounds in less than two weeks.

Mom hugged me the next morning before I went to work. She ran her hands up and down my back and she made a remark about how skinny I’d gotten. Then, she said it: “remember when I used to call you my teeny-tiny girl? I miss those days but I love you just as much as a grown up.” Then she let me go. Pain, nausea, and despair washed over me. Without warning, my lightheadedness came back with a vengeance and I stumbled and fell on the kitchen floor. My hat fell off. With my head spinning, I vaguely remember Mom gasping, “Katie what happened to your hair?!” before I violently threw up on the floor and myself. It was all blood. I passed out to the sound of Mom screaming.

I don’t know how much time went by at the hospital. I wasn’t completely unconscious, but all I remember up until recently when they used drugs to wake me up were images of doctors in the same scuba gear as the guys at work and saying meaningless words like “cesium” and “sloughed” and “gray” that didn’t mean the color.

Today, I can’t move or talk and I’m writing this using a cool keyboard that can pick out letters using the movements of my remaining eye. Like I said in the beginning, I’ll be dead soon. I’m not too fun to look at anymore. My hair’s gone. And my lower jaw. And my skin. The nice doctors are giving me medication that helps me manage the pain and keep me alert. They asked if they could do tests and experiments on me to help understand what ingestion of the radiation medicine does to the human body. Apparently there was a Japanese man a few years ago named Hiroshi Ouchi who got a similar level of exposure and the same stuff happened to him. They said it would help other people in the future if they could compare our two cases. Of course I let them.

I can’t eat food anymore. My esophagus got cooked away. Same with my stomach. The doctors are keeping me hydrated with a tube in my butt. I don’t really like to think about it. I guess all the excitement I get as I wait here is when they weigh me every six hours to see if I’m able to retain the fluids they give me or if it all seeps out into the sheets. They hoist me onto a pad and a little machine voice says a number. This morning it said 72. The next time it was 69.

Mom and Dad have to wear those scuba suits when they come visit. Mom’s always crying because she’s not allowed to touch me. Dad just stares. Right before I started writing this, Mom bent down and started whispering to me some of the stuff I remember her saying when I was small. I closed my eye and imagined being warm and safe on her lap. “I love you, my teeny-tiny girl,” she sobbed. I would have smiled if I had a mouth.

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My wife and I discovered the terrifying truth behind the birds’ nests on our property.

nest

Shanice and I are lucky enough to live in an area replete with wildlife. Every morning, when we’re sitting at the porch table having coffee or simply looking out our kitchen window, deer, foxes, squirrels, groundhogs, chipmunks, or other local fauna appear in our large backyard. Having property near a national park has its perks.

While Shanice is enamored with all things furry and adorable, or “totes adorbs,” which she squeals just to watch me cringe, I’ve grown to love birds. Don’t get me wrong – I’m also quite fond of the “totes adorbs” variety of animals. Our cat, Meowsers, totes exemplifies adorbs. Still, something about birds relaxes me in a way I find difficult to describe. We have such a magnificent diversity of the flying creatures that even after five years of living here, I think I see a new kind every week.

I’ve set up quite a few feeding stations throughout our backyard. My personal favorite is a spot right outside the kitchen windows where hummingbirds congregate. It amazes me how their tiny bodies can contain so much energy to flap their delicate wings as quickly as they do and flit away in the blink of an eye. But it’s not just the hummingbirds. In our yard, sparrows and jays tweet, ravens and jackdaws caw, and the occasional owl endlessly asks the same question.

Whenever the weather allows it, I’ll wander our property and the adjacent park with my head tilted toward the trees to see which of my friends are out and about. Sometimes I came across a hiker or fellow birdwatcher and we’d get to talking about our hobbies and interests before I’d retreat back to my own head and continue walking and observing. I won’t tell Shanice, but sometimes I wish I was a Disney princess who could tame birds and go on adventures with them. A 34 year old, bearded Disney princess with a 3-plate squat and a 4-plate deadlift. Don’t judge me.

One evening, as we sat in the living room and watched TV, we heard the jingle of the bell on Meowsers’ collar as she came in through the cat door. She wandered into the living room and looked at Shanice and me, deciding whose lap she’d grace with her presence. A moment later, I was the chosen one. Meowsers leapt onto my lap and immediately began extending and retracting her claws in an autonomic display of pleasurable biscuit-making.

At a commercial, Shanice got up and went into the kitchen to refill her wine glass. I heard her yell “God damn it, Meowsers!” I looked down at the cat and asked her if she peed on the floor again. Meowsers purred adoringly. Shanice came back into the room holding something in a paper towel. She brought it closer and I could see it was a baby bird. Maybe a robin. Its belly had been torn open and its guts dangled from the wound. Ugly, yellowish-red liquid bloomed outward from the viscera clinging to the towel. I gagged.

The next day, I went and looked around the outside of the house for nests that might be reachable by Meowsers. I hated to disturb them, but I figured the birds would prefer inconvenience over the gleeful murder of their babies by my cat. They weren’t too hard to find, but my quick inspection of the first few determined they were empty and abandoned.

After another few minutes, I found one with tiny babies inside. I wondered where their mom was. All three of them chirped pathetically as I took great care in lifting the nest and bringing it up the steps to the porch. I’d set up a ladder which led up to the roof. I knew Meowsers couldn’t get up there, and I hoped the shadow of the chimney would be a safe spot with relative shelter from the elements.

While I carried the nest, I noticed a few details I’d missed at my first glance. When I realized what they were, my blood ran cold. The nest was woven together with what had to be human hair. All different colors, too. I placed it down on the edge of the porch and took a closer look. It was definitely hair. I moved it around a little bit with my fingers as the birds’ high-pitched screams of terror and hunger drowned out the singsong calls of the ubiquitous adults. Buried within the body of the nest were tattered scraps of leathery material and hard, gray fragments. I gingerly pulled one out with my thumb and forefinger. As soon as I felt it, I knew what it was. A human tooth.

Something was terribly, terribly wrong. I ran back to the other, abandoned nests that I’d only glanced at before. Closer inspection yielded similar construction. When I turned one of them over, I saw a child’s pink necklace was embedded within the tangle of hair. I felt panic rise in my chest. After I’d calmed my breathing enough to yell, I screamed for Shanice to come outside. She had to see what I was seeing to make sure I wasn’t going crazy.

Shanice was visibly shaken by my find. The whole thing got even worse when she pointed out that the leathery material was skin. Without even discussing it with one another, we both knew what we needed to do.

After stopping at the garage to get some tools and a couple sheets of plywood, we threw it all in the pickup, grabbed the ladder from the porch, and drove over to the edge of our property about a quarter mile from the house. When we got to the shed, sure enough, there was a big hole in the roof. Shanice had been bugging me for almost two years to make sure the shed was sturdy and strong, but I’d always put it off because the smell got to me.

Shanice teased me and made me do the majority of the work myself, always laughing when I had to stop and retch. After I hammered in the last nail, I went inside to make sure there were no birds trapped in there. I stepped over the putrefying bodies of hikers and birdwatchers and, sure enough, a tiny nest was hidden in the corner. A couple baby birds lay sleeping inside. How they managed to sleep through the hammering and bickering was beyond me. I smiled and picked up their little home and brought it out into the light. I handed it to Shanice, who grinned at the sight of the babies, and I closed the shed door and replaced the padlock.

While we headed back toward the house, Shanice carefully stroked the head of one of the sleeping babies with her index finger. “You know,” she said, “I guess baby birds can be pretty adorbs too.” I beamed. Maybe she was finally coming around.

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When Malcolm and I were kids, he told me he was terrified of the floaty things in his eyes. He said they were alive and they forced him to do things to himself.

malc

I didn’t understand. I had those floaty things. My teacher said everyone did. An artifact of our eyes developing, or something like that. I guess he’d been told the same thing, but it did him little good. His parents were concerned, of course, and they brought him to ophthalmologists who were all in agreement: his eyes were fine. When he denied the experts’ claims and doubled down on his insistence that something was wrong, his worried parents got him into therapy.

I guess the therapist helped him a little bit. Malcolm’s paranoia seemed to diminish somewhat and his anxious habits like twitching and blinking weren’t as pronounced. That was good – a lot of kids made fun of the way he blinked. He told me it helped push the things out of sight for a couple seconds.

From what I can remember, Malcolm started seeing the therapist when he was 7 or 8. I thought things were going pretty well until he turned 14. I don’t know if it was the combination of his underlying problems combined with the hormonal onslaught of puberty, but his anxiety and paranoia returned with a vengeance. He started getting into fights at school whenever someone made fun of him. His mom confided in me, since I was his best friend, that she saw cuts and scratches on his upper arms when she accidentally walked in on him getting changed. She was at her wits end with worry and implored me to do whatever I could to help him feel better.

Over time, I worked to evolve my role in his life from friend to confidant. It was easier than I thought. He was used to telling me about his problems. Apparently, aside from his parents and the doctors, I was the only one who knew about his fear of the floaty things. When I asked him about those, he started to cry. He was worried he was schizophrenic; his therapist mentioned the possibility and it terrified him. Those things were always, always present in his field of vision. And while they were there, they talked to him. Goaded him into self-destructive behavior. All he could do to stop himself from going crazy was to obey them and make the little cuts on his arms and legs.

He showed me the cuts. They weren’t deep, but there were a lot of them. Especially on his inner thighs. Being 14 myself and not understanding why someone, anyone, would cut themselves, I tried to get him to explain why he couldn’t just stop. All he said was, “I’m giving them what they ask for so they’ll stop biting.” Before I was able to question what the hell he meant, he kissed me.

I wasn’t prepared that. I’d never been kissed before. I didn’t think I was gay, but I wasn’t particularly interested in girls, either. I kissed him back. And that was it. Whatever it meant to him, I’ll never know for sure. I knew he was dealing with intense turmoil. More than I could handle. But he’d just shown how much he trusts me. He showed me the cuts, knowing I might run away in disgust. He kissed me, knowing I might knock his teeth out. He was trying so hard to overcome whatever was consuming him, and I wasn’t going to let him down. I had to be there for him.

Something like a year passed and Malcolm just got worse. He skipped a lot of school and was even hospitalized when he had some kind of breakdown in the supermarket with his mom about a week before summer vacation. Despite my desire to see him in the hospital and give whatever comfort I could provide, he turned me away. Once he was released, on the infrequent occasions he agreed to meet up with me, he looked awful. His dark brown complexion was tinged with gray. He was emaciated and his arms were covered in cuts. They were deeper now; he didn’t even bother hiding them. They grew up his wrists onto his forearms and biceps and triceps like angry, scabbed ivy. I pitied him.

The day after Christmas, he asked me to visit him at home. His parents were overjoyed by the fact he’d not only initiated the contact, but that he talked openly about how excited he was to give me a present. They thought he might have finally turned the corner.

I walked up the stairs to his bedroom, knocked, and was greeted by something unexpected: his smiling face. He hugged me and had me come in. He handed me an envelope and watched with excitement as I opened it. Inside was an illustration he’d done in the hospital depicting the two of us holding hands. “I can’t thank you enough for all the support you’ve given me,” he whispered, as tears welled up in his eyes.

I beamed at him as he smiled back, the tears now flowing freely over his sharp cheekbones. In what had to be the space of two seconds, he produced a small knife from his back pocket, and, without looking away from me, stabbed through each of his eyes. The only scream that filled the room and echoed through the house was my own. Malcolm sat back, the bed directly behind him, and put his head in his hands. As blood drooled from his punctured eyes and seeped into the carpet, he wept.

His parents arrived in his bedroom seconds after my scream and gasped in horror at the damage to their son. He moved his head up and faced the direction where he assumed his parents were standing. “I had to,” he sobbed, over and over, tears pouring from his undamaged lacrimal glands and diluting the stream of blood flowing down his face.

His father ran to call 911 while his mother wrapped her arms around him, not knowing if she should press something against his bleeding eyes or if that would only make it worse. The bleeding was slowing down to a trickle, though. The first few times he moved his head in my direction, I diverted my eyes, foolishly not wanting to meet his sightless gaze. But, as the moments passed and we waited for the ambulance, I studied his face. He looked calm. Soon, he started to smile; a beatific, worryless grin that was in frightening contrast to the gore only inches above it.

“Watch,” he mouthed at me. As I stared, tiny lines began to appear in the blood around his eyes. The lines looked like tracks, only I couldn’t see what was making them. His mom noticed what was happening and jumped back in surprise. The tracks poured from his ruined eyes and traced clean lines down his dark cheeks. “I told you,” he sighed. He tilted his neck downward and shook his head. When he faced forward again, no new tracks were being carved out of the blood. Malcolm ground his sneaker into the rug where he’d been facing. “Please hold my hand,” he begged, reaching in the direction of where I stood. I did.

The ambulance arrived and rushed Malcolm to the hospital. I didn’t see him again for a long time. After recovering from the surgery to remove his eyes, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he stayed for 18 months. His parents called me a few times early on to let me know how he was doing, and the general consensus was that he seemed a lot better. Yes, he was blind. But he didn’t exhibit the paranoia anymore. He didn’t try to injure himself. He slept through the nights.

I was glad to hear the positive updates, but I was deeply shaken by what I saw that day. Not just Malcolm’s violence toward himself, but the aftermath: the streaked tracks across his bloody face. I never spoke about it with his mother. Even today, it’s something I try to convince myself was a false memory brought on by the trauma of seeing someone I cared for harmed so badly. But I know better.

It was four years before I saw Malcolm again. I visited his house, again around Christmas, because it was the break between my semesters at college. He looked great. The glass eyes he had were eerily lifelike. He’d put on some weight, but he appeared healthy and happy. His parents left us alone to talk. For a couple hours, we chatted about what we’d been up to. When it was time for me to go, I pulled him in for an embrace, which he returned with enthusiasm. “I wanted your face to be the last thing I’d ever see,” he whispered. “Your smile gave me the courage I needed to make myself a better person.” I stared straight ahead into the kitchen, not knowing how to respond. Those floaty things drifted through my vision, contrasting strongly against the white-painted wall. I hugged him tighter.

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