After half an hour’s pacing back and forth he elected to pull the dictionary away from its sedentary life on the bookshelf and drag it into his struggle against the crossword puzzle. Eventually, he gave up, returned the dictionary to its clean patch on the dusty shelf. Any crossword that employed the use of the word “caliginous” was too much for him.
He folded up the paper and kneaded his forehead with his knuckles.
Neil was given leave from work, advised to avoid loud noises, bright lights, crowds, public places, stressful situations, anything that might aggravate the Condition.
He sat in his apartment alone with the blinds shut. Waited. Tried to keep himself busy. He took long showers. He devoted more time to a crossword puzzle than his attention span had ever allowed him before. He thumbed through books he’d read a dozen times. He slept. Dreamed unpleasant and fractured dreams. Waited. Dusted. Swept. Organized his clothing, pantry, books. Gave up. Let the dust settle. Wracked his brain for ways to pass the time. Two weeks. Waited.
The darkness of his empty apartment soaked into his skin, dragged him down like a damp sweater. The Condition grew until it was big as half a grapefruit. It twitched. Stretched. Plucked at the back of his shirt. He ignored it.
He eyed his bookshelf, at the cigarette box perched above the books, a little mute dare. It had been a while. He reached up, plucked the cigarette from its packet, as one might pick a flower. He sniffed it. Wrinkled his nose. It was stale. He dropped it and fell back into bed, betrayed.
Rolled onto his back, stared at the ceiling. Became aware of the ticking of the clock on his bedside table. Realized he’d been like that for almost an hour.
Time to go for a walk. Clear his head. Get something fresh to eat.
Seated on the examination table, Neil’s skin took on the hue of a paper bag left in the sun. The doctor looked like a tea-stain on paper. When Neil lifted up the back of his shirt, the Condition retracted and squirmed. The doctor held up a light, cold and bright as the colourless light bulb overhead, but steady. The Condition extended its tentacles, wound around the light, plucked it out of the doctor’s hand, and tossed it to the floor. The doctor looked Neil in the eye, crossed his arms.
“Not very helpful, is it?”
Neil shrugged. He didn’t appreciate being poked at, either.
The doctor asked for Neil’s medical history, took a blood sample, and palpated his back, running cold fingers over what they called his “condition”. The Condition extended two sinuous tentacles and swatted the doctor’s hands until he learned to respect its personal space.
“Interesting,” said the doctor, and rubbed the backs of his smarting hands. “Very interesting. I don’t suppose this runs in your family, does it?”
“No,” said Neil. “No it doesn’t.”
“I’m sorry,” replied the doctor. “That’s not very helpful, is it?” He shook his head and sighed. “The test results will be in within two weeks. We might know what to do by then.”
“I stopped smoking, you know,” Neil said, his voice taking an involuntary rise in pitch. “Eat my greens. Walk every day.”
“That’s good of you,” said the doctor.
Neil tried to keep his voice steady when he asked if the doctor thought his condition was malignant.
“It is unclear at this point,” said the doctor. “But I would characterize it as irritable. Perhaps a bit surly.”
Neil’s head fell into his hands. He didn’t look up from his feet until he got home.
This is Neil Vernon Parr.
Don’t mind him. Most don’t. He prefers it that way.
He’s fond of large, heavy books heady as a cup of strong black coffee, books with an air of importance about them, an air of age and an aura of dust particles that glint in the evening lamplight as he settles down to read after a long day at work.
It’s just as well he likes the look of drifting dust – he’s been lax on the finer touches of cleaning of late.
It’s been a rough week.
He thumbs through books he’s read a dozen times…
There aren’t many books on his shelf; once he’s done reading, he only keeps the ones with parts that stick in his head and give him the impression he’d be worse off forgetting. He’s fond of old, heavy books based in history and off-the-wall speculations on what most would consider pseudo-history.
A Collection of Twelfth Century Vrellenie Poems (translated by Stanley Fish)
The Maiden Voyage of the Amalthea (and the curious events that followed) by Verosa Ribbons
The Ruins of Alkhaven Roads
The Amphigorvian Railway
There are others.
There is also a noisy metal box of the sort used to hold paper and coin currency, with a little locking latch. The box sits on the bottom shelf, pressed against the left hand side of the bookshelf. The sticker on top, peeled from the front of a cigarette packet, reads
Tobacco and Prose.
It matches the label of the little box perched atop the bookshelf. A single pale cigarette peeks out of the opened top.
At the grocer’s, Neil tries to remember which sort of fruit is meant to elevate his endorphin receptors. He’s uncertain of what that means, but the language of the doctor’s office has taken root in his brain. He’s drawn to the familiar tart green apples, but knows it’ll take something more exotic to trick him into feeling better. He palpates a large pink fruit, fat and shiny.
It twitches and emits a cloud of spicy spores. He drops it back into the basket, where it wheezes out another peppery puff of spores and deflates somewhat. Neil sneezes into his elbow. Decides to let it go.
He takes his groceries (coffee, apples, spinach, milk) to the counter. As the girl packs them into his bag, the Condition reaches out from under his raincoat, reaches towards the rows of cigarette boxes. Her eyes go big. Neil grabs the tentacle with both hands, bends it around his elbow, twists until he hears it hiss. He lets it go. Like the slapped hand of a child it retreats under his coat. In the ensuing silence, Neil clears his throat and points towards a pack of his brand.
“Those too, please.”
After a few days, it occurred to him that it wasn’t going away. When he stretched, went to crack his back, his hand cupped unfamiliar flesh. He was sure it had swollen, gained palpable weight. At home, he stripped, showered, dried, sat on the edge of the bed, ran his hand over the swelling. It put him in mind of a bruised fruit. He could feel soft cords of raised flesh beneath the skin, radiating out from the center like the arms of a starfish.
He tried to think of his family medical history. The cords under his skin twitched. He retracted his hand. Tried to think of something else.
After some trouble, he secured an appointment at the medical office.
It had been a long day at work. When he peeled himself bare and ran a shower, he was disgusted to find the acrid chemical smell of the warehouse had saturated his skin, gotten caught in his bristly hair. The pipes groaned and the shower sputtered rust-flecked ice-water for a moment, but soon cleared and warmed. He scrubbed his hair, rinsed himself off, blew his nose six or seven times, stood there with his eyes shut until the water went too cold for his liking. Even then, the ache in his back, just above the right hip, put him in mind of growing pains.
He tried to remember if he’d jarred it, lifted something wrong, bruised it somehow. He told himself it was a sore muscle, a knot, a symptom of a day’s physical labour. It’d relax and untie within the week.