This week’s story was inspired by pain. Specifically, my pain. (If you want the details – nothing gory, I promise! – scroll to the bottom of this post.) I thought I’d try my hand at talking about pain in the context of a story. Last night, the opening and closing scenes came to me, and “Prognosis” was born. Here’s a scene from the middle of the story:
Millie’s fingers find the bruise, fresh enough to still be more purple than yellow, in the crook of her elbow. She picks at the sticky residue the bandage left behind. At the end of her life, Millie’s mother would bruise from the slightest touch, her skin tearing and turning black. Millie sees the ghost of her mother in her own skin, translucent and fragile.
That morning, as usual, she and Cassandra shared the paper over a breakfast of Cheerios and black coffee. Millie found herself drawn to the obituaries.
“I don’t believe this,” she said. Cassie’s pen hovered over the crossword. “Do they really expect us to believe that everyone’s battle with cancer is courageous?”
Her sister grunted. “I’d imagine living with cancer is an act of courage, yes.”
“But it sounds so positive. Optimistic.” Millie turned to the funny pages. Marmaduke always made her chuckle. “Be prepared for me to be decidedly uncourageous. Pessimistic. Ornery, even.”
Millie is so used to pain, she can go days without thinking about it. At first, it consumed her. She imagined it as a great winged bird, perched on her back, its talons piercing her flesh. The bird grew fatter, heavier, as each day wore on. By evening, she was so exhausted from bearing its weight that Cassandra brought her dinner in bed, their mother’s china on a wooden tray. She swallowed ibuprofen like candy.
In the doctor’s office, she focuses on the faded print of the Cliffs of Moher, adds it to the list of places she will never visit. Only a few cause an ache in her chest: her father’s childhood home in the French countryside near Eze, the Great Wall of China, the Hawaiian islands, her mother’s mother’s homestead, still standing, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Cassandra loaded them both into the car last summer to check the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas off the list. Millie loved the cacophony of the casinos, the way her arms marbled into gooseflesh in the air conditioned hotels after the heat of the desert. A framed picture of the two of them astride donkeys, ascending from the Grand Canyon floor, sits atop the bookshelf in the study.
At night, Millie lays in her narrow bed, her brain muddy from the sleeping pills, and remembers the people, lost to her now, with whom she shared her life: the faces of her parents, her husband, school chums, neighbors. But mostly she imagines the lives she hasn’t lived, and never will: A second marriage to the handsome widow who approaches her nervously during the cruise-ship dinner. The quiet years after Cassandra’s death, a pussy cat curled on her lap, purring. A time when pain is forgotten, when the bird unfurls its wings and flies away, and Millie stands straight and strong.
So, back over the holidays, I slept funny. You know that pain you get in your neck when you tweak it just so? That’s what I had… but it hasn’t gone away. I’m seeing a doctor for it, and basically I have an inflamed nerve in my neck, which causes my trapezius muscle to lock up, which has resulted in painful trigger points all through my tricep and forearm. See, I told you, not gory at all!