This is an excerpt of the novel I’ll be drafting this November as part of NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. Just a teaser. I may post excerpts on this blog from time to time as I make my way through.
One itchy elbow, right foot falling into a pins-and-needles sensation, and the slight stress from wondering if the glob of putty above my left eye was going to run down my forehead: this was the sum of my bodily annoyances. I tried to see the clock on the wall ahead of me, but with my glasses off I needed to squint to read the hands. Hopefully I was near the end of this test.
I heard a metal click but knew not to move in response to it.
“How are you doing, hon,” asked Cindy, the lab technician. That must mean it was okay to move my jaw to answer her.
“I’m okay. Itchy, and I think my right foot’s asleep.”
“Go ahead and scratch if it’s not your head, and shake your foot a little.”
I hadn’t moved more than two millimeters and the seismograph thing set up next to me went wild, scratching out thick, dark lines on the paper. Well, I presumed that’s what it was doing. I didn’t need to look at it to know what my brainwaves looked like. I scratched my elbow through my shirt, but that wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t dig under my sleeve without upsetting the wires. I pounded my foot on the floor, trying to get it startled enough to wake up. Without thinking, I reached up to stop the glop on my head from getting in my eyes. I knew better than to touch anything other than the tip of my nose, but once I’d started moving itches popped up everywhere, and I forgot myself.
“Oh, hang on there, bucko,” said my doctor, who’d come into the room behind me. He put my hand down on the armrest. “Don’t mess with the wires.”
I took a breath and relaxed, having heard this a million times already. He walked over to the machine, running his hand over his mutton chop sideburns, which I’d figured out by now meant he was confused about something. The doctor pulled at the paper in the basket next to the small green monitor until he had a long ribbon of it between his hands. The technician came out from the next room.
“There’s the abnormality,” I heard him say to her, pointing at the paper in a few places. “Let’s run one more test since he’s still hooked up, only this time I want to make a change to the stimulus.” They walked away, talking, and I was free to sneak in a scratch at whatever needed attention. At the moment, nothing bothered me. My body never cooperated; it didn’t seem to demand anything when I was allowed to deal with it.
The doctor was back at my side, talking loudly to me as if I had hearing problems, not a seizure disorder.
“Okay, Jack, we’re going to do just one more test. It’ll only take a few minutes.”
I nodded, and waited. I’d gotten good at staying absolutely still. I felt a buzz along my spine, which caused me to jerk a bit, and the machine roared.
Suddenly I lost all consciousness of the room, the wires, the cold putty in my hair. In a flash I was on a hillside, walking up a dirt trail, holding something in my hand that felt like a book. I didn’t want to be carrying it. In fact, I was afraid of where I was going with it, like I was in trouble. And something felt wrong with how I was walking, as if the effort it normally took to lift my feet had been recalibrated.
“Do you notice anything,” asked the doctor through the microphone in the other room. I was back. But of course I hadn’t left.
“I saw something,” I said. With each passing second, I felt less sure of where I’d just been.
“Can you describe it,” he asked. He sounded kind of excited.
I told him, feeling foolish, about the hill and the dirt path. It hit me, like a memory, just then, that I had been wearing strange shoes. Moccasins, maybe. I didn’t have any moccasins, so how could I remember them?
He wrote down everything I said, turning off his microphone partway through. I could see him talking with the lab technician. It was hard to tell out of the corner of my eye what was happening, but soon he stepped back into the room and told me I’d done a good job. He clapped a hand on my shoulder harder than he needed to, and didn’t catch my nervousness.
The technician unhooked me from the machine; I was grateful not to have all my brain waves telegraphed to everyone in the room. She pulled a tray over a bowl with warm water set next to a handcloth, and wiped most of the putty off of my scalp and temples. I looked ahead at the picture of Bruce Jenner on the wall in front of me, never understanding why of all the things that they could have hung up, they chose this poster.
The doctor walked over to my mother who was hunched over an issue of People in the waiting room. She looked up at him and pushed her thick glasses up her nose.
“Jack was great today,” he said, “and I’d like to see him next week if you can bring him in. I think we’re close to isolating the source of his seizures.”
“Oh, really,” she asked, smiling at me. “He’s such a good kid. It’s just terrible that he has to deal with these episodes. It would be great if he could be done with this when he starts high school next fall.”
“Mom,” I said, hoping she’d not see the need to say anymore.
“It’s okay, Jack,” the doctor said, now grinning. “I’m really glad we got you in this study.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I shrugged. But I still felt troubled by the experience.
I’d almost forgotten about the weird sensation from the study several days earlier. I went back to my routine, each day making sure I took my pills, watching where I was walking, being careful all the time, in case I started to seize. The sink in my bathroom was padded so I wouldn’t crack my head on the porcelain. I never was allowed to sleep in the top of a bunk bed. These were little things that for the most part, I didn’t notice, until I noticed how carefree my classmates were. They climbed trees unafraid of losing consciousness, swam in deep lakes, rode bicycles without their parents chasing after them to put on elbow pads and helmets. I was unlike other people and little by little, I was less sure my illness made me “special,” and more certain that it just hindered me.
I counted the hours until I could go to the next session in the brain study. I’d had brain scans for years, but this doctor said he wanted to find out what was wrong with me and fix it. I figured he knew more about it than I did.
Mom wanted to hold my hand. “You’re such a strong boy,” she said to me, and I worried for her because she often told me the opposite of what she was really thinking. I squeezed her hand and told her I’d be back soon, handing her a magazine. I even waved as I walked out of the waiting room with the nurse. Soon enough the machines would show the doctor that my heart was pounding in my chest.
But by the time I was hooked back up to the chair, I had calmed down.
“Okay, Jack, we’re going to do the first part of the test now. Stay as still as possible.”
Things that needed scratching suddenly sprang up all over my body, mocking me. I resisted, trying to imagine I was at the beach with the warm ocean water splashing over my toes. I could hear my Mom laughing, lighthearted, in a way that she didn’t do very often. Usually she just sucked in a lot of air and held it in her lungs, bobbing around a bit as it came out of her, a happy sort of wheeze. But when I imagined her really, really happy, she exploded with a long guffaw that bounced around a musical scale, like she was singing through the laugh. I didn’t realize I’d started smiling. I relaxed my muscles and listened to the needles on the machine scribbling out my faulty brain waves. If the doctor minded me falling asleep in the test, he’d wake me up. But sometimes they wanted to catch me napping; I wasn’t sure why.
Some time later the recording stopped and the doctor piped up. I felt flooded with awakeness.
“It’s time for the next part of the test. You okay in there?”
I gave him a thumbs up.
“Good. Okay, here we go, Jack.” A light started flickering on off, on off, on off, in rapid succession.
Tingles along my arms. Suddenly I tasted a ham and cheese sandwich in my mouth, as if I’d just swallowed it. That upset me. I wanted to say something to the doctor—stop the test—or the technician—something is wrong—but I couldn’t open my mouth or move. The world tilted hard to the left, and that was the last I saw of the room.
I blinked, and tried to take in the very bright sunlight. Everything was still askew, and I grabbed onto the thing next to me to steady myself and my stomach. I felt the need to gasp at the air, as if I needed more from it than I was taking in.
“Adjust, adjust,” I told myself. I stood up straighter and tried to look around. I’d been clinging onto a tree, I’d thought. Looking at it more closely, I saw it was a pole. I wasn’t in the exam room. I was outdoors, on a hillside, the same as the last time. I looked at the pole in my hand. Maybe it had been a branch before, but at some point it had been whittled down, sanded, and I felt some cuts in the wood under my thumb. There was a name carved into the side: Jac.
Jack is my name, I thought. It occurred to me that I should try pulling the pole out of the earth. It popped out easily, and I could tell somehow that I had held the pole in just this way many times before. It was a walking stick. My walking stick.
I’d been standing bent over, a well worn trail under my feet. I was wearing soft leather shoes and no socks. This was one crazy dream.
I looked behind me, saw a clearing. Ahead, a small village, at the top of the hill. It was either early morning or late in the day, with the sun and moon both in the sky passing each other. I heard birds chirping excitedly—either because they were just waking up or to say their goodnights.
I looked for other people. I’d never had a dream before where I felt control over it. I decided to decide something, and then I was walking. I pushed up the rest of the hill, feeling the larger pebbles through the soles of my shoes.
“You’re late,” said a woman coming out from the first house on the left. There couldn’t have been more than two dozen buildings here. They were almost white, wooden, like they’d been bleached. Most of them faced each other, built around a courtyard in the middle that had squared stones set into the dusty ground. I could hear water from somewhere, but I didn’t see anything like a river or waterfall. I looked for cars but all I saw were empty dirt roads connected around the courtyard, and one wider dirt road heading south out of town.
“Sorry,” I said, figuring I should walk over to her.
“Sorry what” she asked. She put one hand on her hip and stared at me. She seemed young, or at least younger than my mother, but she also looked more worn out, with sun-faded skin and a streak of gray hair running from the top of her head.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said.
“My sweet Jackie,” she said, grinning at me. “Come on, I need your help with the chickens.”
I followed her, not knowing what else to do. She led me around the back of the house, her hair half-done up in a bun with wisps falling out all around it, looking a bit like the frayed apron strings that hung down lower at the back of her waist. I couldn’t remember ever seeing this place before. I tried to place to where I was, but it didn’t seem like this dream came from any memory of mine.
I looked for street signs, a traffic signal, or a telephone booth, but immediately after I thought of each object I sensed I wouldn’t find any.
I woke with a start, the doctor in my face, checking my eyes with a pen light.
“Jack, there you are,” he said, sounding worried.
“Yes,” I said.
“You had a seizure,” he said, putting the pen light away. His hands free, he began to stroke his beard. “We need to put you under observation for the rest of the day. But the good news is, I think we’ve found the source of the abnormality.”
“So that’s good?”
“Yes, very.” He didn’t seem as happy as he should be.
I still felt out of sync with gravity. He told me to put my head between my legs. The nurse unhooked the wires from my head one by one as I sat with my knees up to my chest. I played with the worn out corduroy fabric on my pants.
The doctor looked at me. “I have to go talk to your Mom, but you’ll get to see her soon. We’re just going to admit you for a little while. It’ll be okay.” He walked out and I waited to hear the door shut.
“So I seized,” I asked Cindy.
“Yeah, I’m sorry, fella,” she said, washing my scalp.
“I was out a long time, huh?”
“Oh no, dear, just a second. We were in here right away and you woke up on your own.”
“Sure, hon, just a few seconds total. You’re totally fine.”
I felt like I’d been gone for at least five minutes. I wondered if I should tell anyone.