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January 6th - Dear Diary,
Dr. Osbourn checked in today, I'm not sure why he comes. He looks at me, I look at him, and we both have the same cast of death in our eyes, though his is less severe, less needy. There are a lot of questions. He asks me how I am, how school is. I lie and tell him everything is fine, and we both ignore the shriveled husk of Grandma Sally laying on the hospital bed beside me, with the tubes feeding oxygen into her nose and eating the urine coming out of her. Sometimes the doctor makes a polite joke about how I need a haircut, I smile and tell him I'm planning on getting one but keep forgetting. Then as gently as he can he slips into an update on 'progress.' Radiation is progress, that is what I've learned about metastatic breast cancer. Grandma had a lot of 'progress' in the last few months. They put her in white light and pump her full of invisible burns to keep abnormal cells from spreading to her lungs, bones, heart, and brain, but they spread there anyway. They marked her at stage four, there is nothing after that. I curled up in a plastic chair, put my arms around my knees and listened to Osbourn tell me about pain management drugs. At night, before I leave, she winces and clenches anyway and I know that all they've done is keep her asleep. Her face is a rag that has sweat so bad that it won't take on more water. The wrinkles in her skin are sometimes slick and shiny when the sunlight glances on her through the window.
I haven't been this scared since my parents crashed into a power pole off Highway 90 and went flying through the windshield and out of my life when I was six. I'm sixteen, it was January then and it’s January now. I might smell the appalling scent of fate, but it could be the reek of death coming off the only person I have left in the world. She lies and doesn't open her eyes, she hasn't in months, and I sense the angry, necrotic cells surfing through her body like flesh-eating zombies, taking her from me. Not even Dr. Osbourn will ask me about my hair after she’s gone. There is talk I'll have to go to a 'home’, since I'm not eighteen yet.
February 4th - Diary,
Grandma opened her eyes! It was only for a minute, but she looked at me! I was shaking so badly I dropped my Hello Kitty mug and it shattered into a thousand pink pieces on the grey linoleum. I slid my fingers in her palm and I squeezed gently. Guess what? She squeezed back! Her skin felt like crumpled paper and the bones beneath it were frail the way I imagine bird bones are frail, but she gave me enough pressure to tell me she’s still there. I didn't let go until the nurses came to tell me it was time to go for the night. I was shaking when I let go and they had to talk to me for a long time before I'd leave. A janitor must have swept up my mug at some point because when I left it was gone. I said a friend was picking me up and then I walked home. It's a two mile trip back to our house on 5th street, but I don't have money for the bus. I'm starting to enjoy it though, it gives me time to think and tonight I had a wonderful idea when I passed under the neon lights of the Dollar Store sign on College Street. I ran into the store and raced through the aisles until I found the stationery bins. I grabbed every colored pencil, pen, and marker Grandma might like and I shoved them in my backpack. Then I took the adult coloring books, the ones with precision pictures of cats and flowers and shit like that, then sudoku puzzles and word-fill books. I was so excited I didn't see the manager had followed me, a fat bald man with no smile lines. He chased me through the store, but I got out the door while he called me a bitch, a cunt and every other filthy word. Tomorrow I'm going to take it to Grandma and lay it on that little desk they've got over her to eat. The food always spoils if I don't take it. They don't seem to realize they've got so many drugs pumping through her that she couldn't swallow even if she did wake up. I wonder though....I wonder if she’ll wake up to do her sudoku. I think she might Diary, I really do. She always cared more about her brain teasers than food. I remember watching her nibble on a piece of toast for an hour, but she could fill a dozen pages with ink in that time when she was really flying with her pens. She would smile this little smile beneath her half-moon spectacles and get the whole book finished by 8:30. I know it sounds crazy but I think it might wake her, I really do.
P.S. A few blocks from home I thought someone was following me. I could hear steps on the sidewalk, loud and rhythmic, but when I turned to look no one was there. I really wonder sometimes if I'm losing my mind. It was dark, it could be in my head.
February 17th - Diary,
Nothing to report, no changes. The doctor came in to tell me they'd shot her full of more ‘progress’ but it wasn't looking good. He talked about survival rates, as if I didn't know that she had a 90% chance of dying within the next two months. I kept imagining that his head was a red bowling ball that might collapse off his shoulders at any moment and crack the linoleum. He told me I should get 'prepared', but I had been for a long time. Grandma was withering in white sheets in front of me, how unprepared did he think I was? She lay there like a peach that had hung too long on the tree, now rotting. Her skin was sallow, white, the blood inside her was flooding toward the organs to keep them pumping like a soldier's retreat to a fortress to make their last stand. Too soon the monsters would crash over the walls, howling and leaping, then she'd die here in this bed if she isn't dead already. I don't know anymore, her heart beats, I can see it on the screen. Her lungs open and close like they should, but does she know that? In Old Oaks Cemetery a few miles away, they'll dig a hole next to my parents and bury her, where the bugs will eat her like they do the peaches. I can't stop crying. I left the books, pens and pencils on her table, but she never opened them.
March 2nd - Diary,
I found out why I felt like someone was following me! It was my neighbor from a few blocks down. His name is Frank, he is an old friend of Grandma’s! He came to the house and apologized for spooking me. He considers himself the neighborhood watch and grandma asked him to keep an eye out for me while she was in the hospital. He showed me a picture of her so I wouldn't think he was lying. He let me keep it! It's a polaroid from the 1950's and I can't believe how much she looks like me. Her hair was long and dark like mine, she had an angled jaw, blue eyes the same as mine. Diary, she was so pretty! I've kept it under my pillow ever since. Frank is nice, always smiling. He wears suspenders over his shirts like grandpa did and he walks with a funny gait. He says a bullet went through his knee during the Vietnam War! Isn't that crazy? He sat on the porch with me for a couple hours last night and we talked and talked. I don't remember the last time I was that happy. My cheeks hurt from smiling. He's really funny! The moon was bright and full, Frank calls it his lucky silver coin.
No news to report on Grandma, still no changes. Frank asked me a whole lot about her and I told him everything. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I haven’t spoken to anyone in so long, I couldn’t stop talking. It’s been six months since I was in school, I haven’t seen my friends in so long they’ve stopped texting. Frank might be the only friend I’ve got. The way he talks about grandma...I think maybe they had a thing once upon a time. He looks so much like Grandpa, it’s kind of weird.
March 10th - Diary,
I didn't stay at the hospital long today, it was still daylight when I left. I've spent the rest of the day laying on Grandma's bed, wrapped up in that checkered red and green quilt she made me. Everything in here smells like her. Why is it so hard to let people go? I know that I'm going to have to, she's got no hair left, her face is infinite wrinkles where the soul is sucking right out of her. I've never felt so guilty, because I can't stand to look at her anymore. The way she lays there, it makes me sick to my stomach. She looks like a skeleton to me, and the skin she has is just stitched on there. I had a horrible dream last night that she opened her eyes and smiled at me, then jumped up in her bed like she'd been able to move the entire time and danced like a puppet jerking at the strings. She laughed at me for crying and as she did her skin started to drip like ice cream melting in the sun. Beneath that I could see all of her, the fat of her breasts, the red-purple tendons where her arms flexed, the stained, hollow bones beneath cracking as she moved, dust shooting from the fractures like steam whistles. No matter how badly her body snapped, she just kept dancing until a white light burned through the ceiling and shined down on her until smoke whirled, singeing the organs black, filling my nostrils with burning flesh. The whole time she just kept shouting 'PROGRESS! PROGRESS!' until my ears went numb, until she was a burning candle, charred black. I woke screaming, hunched against the wall, my brain was frozen with the images. I cried for a long time, until my eyes ran out of tears to cry with.
The doorbell rang and it startled me so bad I knocked over Grandma's stained-glass lamp, it shattered on the floor. Things are always shattering around me these days, Diary. I can't help it, my whole body is always trembling and when I look at my hands they are always quivering. I sometimes wonder if I've got what she used to call 'the shakes’. She says most of the women in our family had it, but of course, a lot of the women in my family have died from breast cancer. A part of me wants to laugh because not only do I look like Grandma, but I've got her wonderful quirks as well. I've already got the shakes, one day I’ll catch the cancer too.
Frank was at the door, and there was so much pity in his eyes that it scared me. He looked on the verge of crying himself, like he'd known somehow that I was in her room, losing what was left of my mind. When he asked me if I was ok, I wrapped my hands in his suspenders, buried my face in his stomach and cried some more. I tried to tell him why I was bawling but all that came out was gibberish and I soaked his shirt clean through. He wrapped his arms around me, hugged me like he really was Grandpa and told me everything was going to be alright. As he lied to me, I began to feel a little better, just enough to stop pouring out yet another wave of tears. Afterwards he sat with me on the porch awhile, I told him that I was too young to be on my own and when Grandma died, Child Protective Services would take me until I was of age. That Grandma had to refinance the house to pay for her medical bills and most likely the bank would take the house. Then I'd be on my own and everything our family owned would be gone. Frank didn't say anything while I talked, he just stared into the sky at the moon. It was a waxing gibbous, I learned about it in science class, or as Frank called it, his lucky coin mid-flip. He told me in five days, it would be bright and full. Tonight Frank gave me something that frightened me and made me so happy that afterward I slept like the dead. I can't tell you what Diary. He made me promise not to say anything about it, and that includes you.
P.S. I can't take not telling you Diary, I just can't. I'm going to tell you but you have to keep my secret. Frank gave me an IV blood bag. I asked him where he got it but he wouldn’t tell me. He made me promise a bunch of times not to tell anyone and that if anyone caught me with it, I wouldn’t let them know where I'd gotten it from. He says that on March 15th I have to hook it up in Grandma's room, if I do it right she'll get better. I had so many questions, but Frank wouldn't answer them. We stayed up late and he showed me how to change the bags. I did it over and over until I got it right. At dawn, I passed out on the porch and when I woke up, Frank was gone.
March 15th - Diary
It wasn't hard to hide in the hospital. I am there so often the nurses are used to seeing me leave at night. When they looked in the room and saw me gone, they didn't think to check the bathroom. This one had a bathtub with a safety bar and a white curtain over it, and I sat at the bottom of it until long past the sun went down. My phone flashed 10:30 before I moved. Then I crept from the bathroom with the IV bag in my backpack. I looked at Grandma, she lay there shriveled, dying and for a moment I was afraid that she might give up before I had a chance to change the bag, but the heart kept beeping on the screen. I turned to the IV pole and I thought back to what Frank had taught me. Out the window, his Silver Coin rose full and brilliant between the window curtains. As it rose into the night the light was creeping closer to the bed. It scared me suddenly, that moon. Frank's moon.
I removed the solution bag from the pole and turned it upside down, grasping the tubing port. I twisted the spike carefully and tapped it so that nothing was left. Then I set the new bag, the one Frank had given me. I opened the tube and a line of blood flooded through it, the color of black licorice. Now all I have to do is wait, Diary, but I think she's already starting to look better! I want to describe her for you in case I forget later. I'll try to list the changes, but my hands are shaking again. I'm filled with joy and the moonlight lays across me like a silver blanket, brightening Grandma's skin. She's shining with it!
She has color in her face again, she looks younger suddenly, her eyebrows aren't wincing together anymore. She looks at peace.
I know this is insane, but her body seems...fuller somehow. Like muscle is regrowing under the skin, tightening.
She has a smell to her, but it's not the aroma of death anymore. She smells...I don't know how to put it. Like a zoo? Yes, I think that's accurate.
Diary, I don't know what to say, you'll think me crazy. But her hair is regrowing; thick, black, spilling around her shoulders like one of those Just For Men commercials on fast forward. The hair has grown down her body, coarse and dark. I'm sitting away from her, Diary. I’m over in the corner now. It's better that I wait here.
Her face is...different, the jaw is angled like a beast. Her face is slowly protruding outward and Grandma is breathing very fast now. She's tossing and turning again, and her hands...the fingers have claws on them. She just ripped out her breathing tube...and the other tube, the one that took her urine. She hasn't woken up, not yet. But something is wrong, Diary. I'm going to keep writing to you, it's the only thing keeping me here. I'm really scared. The moonlight is making her glimmer so bright that it reminds me of my dream with the radiation lamps.
Grandma is awake. This isn't what I imagined. She's in the corner, crouched like some beast. Her night gown is hanging on her in scraps. Oh my God, Diary, she is howling. She's looking at me and the moon shines silver on her fur. She's growling, I think she wants a hug. I'm scared, but that's my Grandma Sally, that is her. I'm going to give her one.
Copyright © 2020 by Kenneth McIntosh
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