It’s been just me and my brother for the last fourteen years. No one else. He’s Randall. I’m Joe.
Randall thinks his leg doesn’t belong to him. I thought he was crazy. He is, of course. We both are. We’ve always been. But this seemed different. Still, I didn’t believe him until his foot started to talk.
“I’m gonna hurt you, Randall,” the foot announced. It was the middle of the night. The voice woke us both up.
“See!” shouted my brother. “See!”
I bolted upright and turned on the bedside lamp and looked across the room. My brother’s fat foot was sticking out from underneath the sheet. His toes were wiggling.
As Andrew got sicker, he’d point to perceived smudges on our bedroom window. Nothing discernible to him. Not at first. But the decline in my partner’s health brought with it a growing realization. “It’s a face,” he told me. “It’s someone’s face.”
I saw nothing.
I sat with Andrew through it all. Every sleepless night. Every shriek of terror as nightmares tore through him. Every sobbing declaration that he wasn’t ready. In the mornings, the smudged face would be there, ever clearer to him. He was terrified of it. Still, I saw nothing.
I’ve lived in the same house for 40 years. After Ralph passed and I was left alone for the first time in three decades, I turned to my neighbors for comfort. They provided it in spades. I was honored and brought to tears by their kindness. Not too many places would make sure a lonely old man was taken care of. I’m surrounded by wonderful, beautiful people.
I took on the role of a grandfather to some of the neighborhood children. I was more than happy to babysit; Ralph and I always wanted to adopt but it wasn’t permitted in our state. So, having the opportunity to be a formative figure in the lives of these children was a great privilege. It made me feel like I was getting another chance to do everything that had been denied to me. I wish Ralph could’ve been here to take part. Still, I know he’s watching with the same love and pride he expressed every day he was alive.
One girl, Madison, formed a particularly strong connection to me. Her father was out of the picture. Her mom, Helen, who was forced to work full time, was rarely home during the day. Helen had always been the most supportive and loving of the neighbors after Ralph’s death, so when I had the opportunity to help with Madison and watch her during the work day, I was more than willing.
I started looking after Madison soon after her 10th birthday. She fell in love with the collection of toy kangaroos all over the house. Ralph was born in Australia and I always used to call him my little roo – especially when he got excited and his accent became more pronounced. On his birthdays, I’d give him some type of kangaroo toy. They’d been gathering dust after his passing and I was glad Madison could give them some life again.
Years passed and Madison started to grow up. I worried she was becoming depressed. She never had very many friends in school. She’d come straight over when her day was done and do her homework while waiting for her mom. Her mood was less bubbly than I’d remembered. Part of it, I’m sure, was her age. Adolescence is tough for everyone, let alone someone with a difficult family life like Madison. Still, I worried about her. She was perfectly nice to me and was never rude or disrespectful, but she’d withdrawn. She didn’t watch television with me anymore after her homework, either. She’d just sit on the floor in her kangaroo pajamas, which were far too small for her at that point, playing with Ralph’s figurines. Just like she did when she was little.
When Madison was 16, she got a boyfriend. Her first one, as far as I knew. I didn’t like him. At all. He was your typical teenage tough-guy type; a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed loser. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, though. Madison wouldn’t bring him over and I think she sensed I didn’t approve. But it wasn’t my business. I told myself years before that such situations were purely between Madison and her mother. Only if I felt like Madison was in danger would I interfere.
Madison spent more and more time with the boyfriend and less and less with me. The house grew quiet again. The other children I’d taken care of had grown old enough to watch themselves. Their parents stopped by every so often for coffee, but my general person-to-person interaction was far less than I’d previously enjoyed. I was lonely.
One night, Helen came to me in a panic. Apparently, Madison had admitted to using drugs. Helen had no idea what kind or anything like that, but she was terrified for her daughter’s safety. I tried to reassure her that there had to be something the school could do, but that was when she told me the other half of the story: Madison was pregnant.
This floored me. I’d seen Madison around town over the last few months and I’d noticed she’d gained some weight, but it never occurred to me she might be pregnant. Now her drug use was even more worrying. We tried to figure out a plan together and the only thing we could agree on was that the school had to know. Even though the local school system wasn’t the best, they had to have some resources dedicated to problems like these.
The school did nothing. Madison’s reckless behavior continued. Helen was too terrified to notify the police because she feared she’d be put in a foster home. I, too, was clueless. Time went by and the rare times I’d see Madison in town, she’d be stumbling around drunkenly with her idiot boyfriend, her protrusive belly an obscenity against the background of her intoxication.
On a late afternoon in February, I was leaving the supermarket when Madison spotted me from across the parking lot. She wasn’t with her boyfriend, thankfully. She rushed up to me and gave me a big hug. She didn’t seem drunk, but she had to have been on something. Her pupils were dilated and her words were slurred as she said how much she missed me. Then she asked if she could come over later to see the kangaroos. I told her that would be wonderful and that I missed her.
At some point around 7, Madison came over. I ushered her in quickly; it was way below freezing outside and she looked ill. I could tell she was high. She shuffled in without saying hello and went to the mantle where the kangaroos stood. In a singsong, childish voice, she talked to them. When she was 11, I thought that type of thing was cute. Now, though, knowing she was under the influence of something that was poisoning not only her, but the baby as well, it was far less adorable.
I walked up to her and asked if I could take her coat and if she’d like some tea and chocolate cake. She didn’t reply. She just kept talking to the kangaroos. I sighed and sat down on the couch, waiting for her to either snap out of it and talk to me or leave and hopefully go home to her mom.
Madison went down the line of the kangaroo toys on the mantle, saying “I love you” to each one. Then she walked back, doing the same thing in reverse order. Then she faced me. “I love you too, Michael,” she cooed, a thin smile cracking her pale face. “But you know what? I love Roo most of all!”
Madison dropped her heavy coat to the floor and I screamed. A gaping wound had been carved across the top of her belly. The blue head and chest and right arm of her baby stuck out from the opening. “Look at little Roo,” she said weakly. “Such a good little Roo.” Madison tried to hop toward me, mimicking a kangaroo. The limp head and arm of the child flopped back and forth with the movement.
“Sweet little Roo. All warm and safe in his pouch.”
When I was four, I killed my first ant. It didn’t have a name. Of that, I was absolutely certain.
My own name isn’t important to you right now, although it’s likely you’ll learn some version of it soon. I think you’ll end up learning a lot about me in the coming days; some will be true, most will be false. There is a crucial element that will be missed, simply because it’s unknowable to anyone else. Anyone but me.
But I’m going to share it with you.
At the age of 19, as a soldier, I killed my first person. He had a name. Of that, too, I was absolutely certain. And he changed me.
My act of violence led me to learn who he was and what he meant to others. And, at the same time, I learned something essential about myself. Something I was unprepared for. I recoiled in profound, uncomprehending terror.
Today, I work in a hospice. No one there knows what I’ve done. No one there knows who I really am. They think I’m there to work, which is technically true. But I have more tasks than those given to me by supervisors. One particular task – one I’ve prepared for and dreamed about – is to be done today.
Today is when I learn whether or not I’m going to die.
Today is my 522nd birthday. Believe it, don’t believe it; it doesn’t matter to me. When I killed my first person the age of 19, I did more than take his life. I assumed parts of him. He was a left-handed blacksmith’s apprentice named Pierre Gaultier. The moment he breathed his final breath, my left hand lost its sinister clumsiness. I instantaneously understood the basics of metalworking. And I learned his name. I felt his name. It was as familiar to me as my own.
It was the most horrifying moment of my life. The most disorienting. And that night, using my newly dextrous left hand, I tried to cut my own throat. The blade passed over my skin as if it were iron. I later hanged myself from a beam in an abandoned abbey, only to dangle uselessly for three days before I was found and cut down by a local derelict. I begged him to help me take my life, but I didn’t have enough money to make it worth his while. When I killed him in a rage of frightened and confused desperation, I absorbed his alcoholism.
The following centuries were a haze of blood and drink. I’ve absorbed countless talents. Countless traits. Countless vices. But the names – the names aren’t countless. There are 7,339 names inside me now. 7,339 clusters of memories to haunt me.
This all leads to today. For 500 years, I’ve stayed under the radar. I’ve hidden in the shadows and killed and killed and killed, hoping to absorb any knowledge someone might have of another man like me. Another man who shares my curse. But I’m unique. No one is like me. Every open throat and subsequent transfer of name and ability has yielded nothing useful.
Nothing useful, that is, until last month. He was a man called Gustav Brennerson and along with his name, he transferred to me his influenza. It was the first time I’ve ever been sick.
The hospice here has 44 beds. 41 are filled.
I dream of names and cancer every night while I’m taunted by the false death of sleep. Tonight, wherever it is I lay my head as it seethes with 41 new names, I pray it seethes with something new. Something malignant. Something terminal. Something that will end these centuries of hideous wandering.
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.
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 boobs. 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.