In the beginningâ€¦
The thing that he didnâ€™t know at the time was really the one thing that he needed to know his whole life. But at that time, he didnâ€™t know it, so it didnâ€™t matter. The thing became what he was looking for, whether he knew it or not, and it was at that moment, again, though he didnâ€™t realize it, that the yearning for the thing developed.
He doesnâ€™t remember the moment very well. In fact, he doesnâ€™t remember it at all â€“ the memory is more of a transference from his mother and father than something his own brain recorded. In the end, the specifics of the memory didnâ€™t matter because its most important legacy was the spark that ignited his desire â€“ the desire that ultimately drove his whole life, or so he claimed.
In the beginning â€“ in his beginning â€“ was love.
His mother was watching from across the street. He was one-and-a-half years old. He was holding hands with his father. It was fall and there were some big oak leaves on the sidewalk that held his gaze. He pointed to one of the leaves and his dad bent over to pick it up, letting go of his hand. He waddled away from his father and looked across the street at his mother. She smiled and waved at him. He bent down and picked up a leaf of his own, held it up, and looked over at his mother with an enormous grin on his face. He laughed and then his dad came from behind him and lifted him onto his shoulders. His gaze was locked with his motherâ€™s and he held his arms up. He laughed some more.
Once the street was clear his mother walked over and his dad squatted down so she could grab her son from his arms. He kissed his mom on her cheek and continued giggling. His dad grabbed another leaf from the ground and handed it to him. He held it in front of his face and looked into his momâ€™s eyes.
His mom was born in McMinnville, Oregon to Mary and Mort Christianson, both of whom were Midwest transplants. It wasnâ€™t until sixth grade when he was given an assignment to write his genealogy that he really know much about his family background. Neither his mother nor father were close to their parents, and all of his other relatives were spread across the country.
Mary Maseo grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. Her father studied Asian history and had met her mother on a trip he took to Japan in order to collect Ukiyo-E artwork from the Edo period. Specifically, he was looking for a particular print by Kitao Shigemasa, instead he found Akemi. â€œShe was my light and beauty,â€ he told Mary many times. He convinced her to return to Madison with him where she could assist him with research. Late nights translating traditional texts and tracing themes through the prints lead to love and they were married in 1935. Mary was born less than a year later, in the fall of 1936 and her sister Susan was born in 1939.
Despite the liberal tendencies of Madison, Mary and her family faced problems due to their mixed heritage, and her father ultimately gave up his position at Madison so they could move farther into the country and become more isolated. With World War Two gaining momentum and hostility among all groups of Americans growing, Mr. Maseo was convinced that rural Wisconsin would be the safest place to live. When Japanese internment began plaguing the west coast a few years later, authorities didnâ€™t even know to look in rural Wisconsin for Mary and her family, despite the fact their small farm was only 150 miles or so from Milwaukee.
After the war Maryâ€™s family relocated again, this time to Chicago where Mary and Susan began attending a private Catholic school. Both of the girls excelled in their studies â€“ Mary, it turned out, was a masterful poet, and Susan had an uncanny ability to play the viola and understand the sciences, which were still mostly off-limits to young girls, especially young girls at a Catholic school. The nuns made an exception for Susan, explaining that because she â€œhad an Oriental mindâ€ she shouldnâ€™t be expected to adhere to the same rules. The nuns, in fact, seemed to be disappointed in Maryâ€™s more traditional interest in language and Biblical studies.
When Mary graduated from the Catholic school in 1954 she had hoped to pursue her interest in writing by attending an arts school in New York. During her senior year she attended a night class for writers, where one of the young women in the class had given her a copy of a magazine called Mademoiselle that included a poem called â€œMad Girlâ€™s Love Songâ€ by a woman named Sylvia Plath.
â€œAfter Johnny Kartoolee took me home after a party when I was a sophomore, I found this poem the next day when I stopped at the drug store to get a pack of smokes,â€ the woman told Mary. â€œI read it and thought, â€˜This is exactly how I feel. This is exactly how he made me feel.â€™â€ The woman explained to Mary that she had developed a crush on Johnny Kartoolee when they had American History together and she always imagined him making love to her, but that when it really happened it wasnâ€™t what she expected â€“ not necessarily in a good or bad way, just not what she expected. â€œI donâ€™t know who this woman who wrote it is, but itâ€™s amazing. Itâ€™s the only thing that has captured what I feel. I wish I could write like her.â€
Mary bragged about that moment her entire life â€“ the fact that she was one of those rare and lucky individuals who read Plath during her early days and loved the poem Plath herself called one of her favorite villanelles and helped propel her into the magazine experience that inspired her to write The Bell Jar.
Despite her enthusiasm about writing, however, and her ambitions to move to New York and follow Plathâ€™s success as a young poet, Maryâ€™s mother wouldnâ€™t hear of her daughter moving across the country and insisted that she start thinking about more serious matters such as raising a family. Mary and Akemiâ€™s fights grew in intensity, and finally in January of 1955 Mary collected the $350 she had saved from graduation and odd-jobs she had during the previous six months and left Chicago and her family without warning. She boarded a train, hoping the experience would change her life and provide her with stories she could later turn into extravagant poems. Instead, she ended up in a small town in Kansas.
The day she met Mort she was feeling depressed and lonely. The train had stopped to give people time to eat and breathe fresh air and somehow Mary strayed too far from the train and missed its departure. The people at the station assured her that she could catch another train when it ran through the town the next day. One of the old women even offered to let Mary stay with her. Instead, though, Mary decided to make the best of the situation and went to a small diner where she planned to spend the afternoon writing.
The diner she chose was located on the main drag and had a wooden porch in the front where all the regulars sat as they discussed the town gossip, sipped hot cocoa, and did crossword puzzles. There was a small wood-burning stove on the end of the porch which made the temperature hospitable, even during the cold, dry winters. The patrons still had to be bundled up in jackets and scarves, but apparently sitting on the porch made it worth doing. Mary was slightly intimidated by the faces, which obviously recognized her only has an outsider, but, again, she tried to make the best of the situation and strutted into the diner, ignoring the gawks and glares, and sat down on the red, vinyl-covered stool at the U-shaped counter. The walls of the diner were painted white, though dust and grime had faded the brightness into a dull yellowish, grayish white color. The floor was titled in a black and white checkered pattern. The wooden booth had the same red vinyl covering as the stool.
â€œWhat can I get you sweetie?â€ the round-faced, ruddy-cheeked waitress asked. She had slightly-graying blonde hair. Mary wondered why she pulled her hair back in a pony-tail even though the style, Mary thought, was really juvenile and left her graying roots fully exposed.
â€œHow about a cup of coffee?â€ Mary asked shyly.
â€œHow do you take it?â€ the waitress asked briskly as she scribbled something on her note pad. She seemed to be intentionally avoiding eye contact with Mary.
â€œLots of sugar. Maybe a little milk on the side?â€
The waitress quickly spun around after she finished writing Maryâ€™s order on the pad. Most of Maryâ€™s luggage was on the train that she missed, so all she had with her was the duffel bag that she kept some sanitary pads, two notebooks, an extra sweater, and a pair of slippers in. She fumbled through the bag to take out her notebook and set it on the counter.
The waitress returned with a cup of coffee on a teal-colored saucer within a matter of seconds. â€œDo you want anything else, dear?â€ she asked. Mary was annoyed that the waitress felt the need to feign kindness.
â€œI asked for lots of sugar and milk,â€ Mary reminded her.
â€œOh, I couldnâ€™t hear you,â€ the waitress lied. She reached under the counter and produced a small tin of sugar and set it beside the cup and saucer. â€œLet me get some milk.â€ She walked back into the kitchen and returned with a small cup. â€œHere you go, dear. Anything else?â€
Mary smiled and shook her head. â€œThis is all I need now. Maybe some food later,â€ she paused, â€œIâ€™ll let you know.â€
The waitress nodded and walked over to a table where some customers had just sat down. Mary slowly scooped the sugar into the cup and gently poured a few drops of milk. The nuns had never let her drink coffee and her parents only drank tea. This was her first time drinking coffee. She ordered it â€“ with lots of sugar and a little milk â€“ the same way Mrs. Powalski, one of the woman who worked at the art museum where her father ended up working in Chicago, had ordered her coffee whenever Maryâ€™s family would have dinner at the Powalskiâ€™s. Mary had always been impressed with Mrs. Powalskiâ€™s poise and secretly imagined that Mrs. Powalski, who had no children and whoâ€™s husband Henry had been killed during World War II, was a novelist or poet or lead some sort of hidden life. Mary pretended that drinking coffee just like Mrs. Powalski would give her the same allure and mysterious air.
After struggling through her first bitter cup of coffee, Mary decided that next time she needed to add more milk and maybe even more sugar â€“ six or seven small scoops, she determined, would be enough sugar to hide the bitterness. Or maybe, she even thought, the coffee at this diner just wasnâ€™t good. She remembered Mrs. Powalski complaining once about cheap coffee and that only gourmet coffee was worth putting into your body. Feigning energy and inspiration from the coffee, Mary opened her notebook. She stared at the blank page. She didnâ€™t know what to write. She flipped back to the previous page to see what she had previously written in hope that it would inspire her.
Yesterday we passed over the Missouri-Kansas border. The conductor said we would be in Marion County tonight. He said the train would go by Marion Lake. I wonder if they will be different from the lakes they had in Missouri. I remember when I was a kid and we went to see Lake Michigan. That was a real lake.
Sometimes I miss Susan. I donâ€™t miss mom and dad very much, considering they drove me away from home pretty much. I wonder if they are going to let Susan go to university or whether she will have to get married too. Itâ€™s such a waste of a great mind. I hope neither of us ever get married. Once I publish my first poem Iâ€™ll tell Susan to move in with me and Iâ€™ll let her go to university.
Sometimes I wonder where Iâ€™ll end up. I guess most people would say itâ€™s stupid to jump on a train and go across the country, but somehow I just know everything will turn out okay. Maybe Iâ€™ll end up in California or somewhere like that. I know mom and dad visited San Francisco when they came back from Japan and really liked it. Mom told me the weather was beautiful. Once I think she said that her brother lived there, so maybe I could live with him. But I donâ€™t remember what ever happened to him or what his last name is, so I donâ€™t know how I would find him.
Iâ€™m getting tired now so Iâ€™m going to try to sleep. Itâ€™s hard because the man across the aisle from me snores really loud. And he has a hairy nose and hair ears, and the thought of him snoring grosses me out. Heâ€™s got grey hair and I donâ€™t think heâ€™s shaved since he left.
Tomorrow I will write a poem, I think.
Mary sighed. The next day was when she missed the train and got stranded.
â€œWhatâ€™s that writing youâ€™ve got there?â€ a voice from behind her asked. It was a manâ€™s voice. But not too gruff or too deep or too commanding. He seemed soft-spoken â€“ the same way her dad talked. He spoke slowly, despite the fact his language wasnâ€™t very fluid. The diction and the content didnâ€™t seem to match. It was the kind of voice that did not use contractions nor did it utter things like â€œyouâ€™ve got thereâ€ or even â€œyou have got there.â€ She was confused by the inconsistency between the voice and the language. She couldnâ€™t help but turn around to see who was talking to her.
Immediately their eyes locked. Her brown eyes and his green eyes peered into each other. He was definitely attractive, Mary thought; his face was clean-shaven, his hair was cut short. Her eyes glanced down his face to his mouth, which had turned into a smile to match his warm, comforting eyes. â€œSo, uh, what is that writing you have?â€ he asked again.
Mary felt herself blushing. â€œOh, itâ€™s just my dairy or something like that.â€ He nodded. â€œI want to be a writer,â€ she said, followed quickly by, â€œI think.â€
â€œI see.â€ He paused. â€œYou arenâ€™t from here.â€ She wasnâ€™t sure if it was a statement or a question. He slowly walked to the stool next to hers and sat down, equally slowly spinning so that they were face-to-face. He continued to smile â€“ like a high school boy in love, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine his lifeâ€™s story â€“ an exercise writers supposedly did all the time, she once read in an issue of Harperâ€™s. She drew a blank, and when she opened her eyes everything felt fresh and new. She blinked a few times to return to her previous thoughts and answered his statement/question.
â€œNo. No, Iâ€™m not from here.â€ She looked down at her hands, which nervously twitched in her lap. She picked at a cuticle on her ring finger as she proceeded to talk to him. â€œIâ€™m taking a trip across the country.â€ She blushed again. â€œFor inspiration, for, for my writing,â€ she stuttered. She realized that going to an all-girls Catholic school had left her extremely inadequately trained to interact with those strange beasts known as young men who lived in the real world. â€œWhat,â€ she stuttered again, â€œWhat do you do?â€
â€œOh, well, I guess you see right now Iâ€™m just over there working over at my uncleâ€™s butcher shop, but that ainâ€™t what I wanna be doing for all of my whole life.â€ Again, she was astonished by the softness of his voice compared to the harshness of his speech. It was like white-capped waves disturbing a serene, wooded lake, she said to herself, also making a mental note to jot that down in her journal after he left.
She nodded. He glanced over at her notebook. â€œSo what is that youâ€™re writing about?â€
â€œLike I said before, itâ€™s just my diary.â€
â€œOh.â€ He took a deep breath. â€œSo anything interesting has happened to you on your travels?â€
She laughed. â€œI got stuck in this town.â€ She laughed again. â€œSo far this has been the most interesting thing to happen.â€ She paused, thinking of how she wanted to word her next statement. â€œTrains, you see, are not as romantic and exciting as they are made out to be. Maybe in Europe when youâ€™re going over mountains and through small towns, but there isnâ€™t much to see between Chicago and Kansas.â€
â€œYouâ€™re from Chicago?â€
â€œYes, but I was born in Wisconsin.â€
â€œMy cousin Charley moved to Chicago a few years ago. He wanted to work at a meat processing plant,â€ he explained, excited about the connection he thought they were making.
â€œYes, there is a lot of meat packing in Chicago.â€
â€œIâ€™m Mort,â€ he awkwardly interjected.
She stopped picking at her fingers and unfolded her hands. She lifted her right hand and lightly extended it to shake Mortâ€™s hand. â€œIâ€™m Mary. Itâ€™s nice to meet you.â€ And she meant it.
After talking about nothing for fifteen minutes or so, Mort suggested that the two move to a booth because it would allow them more privacy and because the seats were more comfortable.
â€œI canâ€™t believe you just got on a train and left everything.â€
â€œWell,â€ Mary explained slowly, â€œI didnâ€™t leave everything behind.â€ She laughed. â€œThough, I guess, most of my stuff left me behind when that train took off.â€
â€œYah, wow, that ainâ€™t cool at all.â€
Mort was sipping a Coca-Cola from the fountain machine as they talked. Mary was making another attempt at drinking coffee, this time with more sugar and more milk. As they sat across from each other, drinking their respective drinks and sharing their respective life stories, both of them felt compelled to continue digging into each otherâ€™s past.
â€œâ€¦ so what happened after he hit the homerun? I mean, was that the end of the game?â€
Mort blushed. â€œWell, actually, no.â€ He took a sip of his Coca-Cola before continuing, then sat up more straight and held his hands out, as if to demonstrate. â€œYou see, I was up next to bat, and even though I knew we had the game in the sack, I still wanted to impress my folks.â€ He placed both hands on the table in a perpendicular arrangement and pointed his forefinger on his right hand toward Mary and the other hand in a fist in the middle of the table. Although she wasnâ€™t completely sure, Mary assumed he was somehow trying to depict the a pitcher (the fist) and himself (the pointed finger). â€œSo when the pitcher threw the ball,â€ he tilted the fist, as if throwing something, â€œBAM! I cracked that ball straight down the third-base line and ran all the way to second base.â€ He snapped his fingers as if to capture the sound of the leather ball hitting the wooden bat.
â€œThen what happened?â€
Mort relaxed his posture and slouched back into the booth. â€œThe next guy up to bat, Chris McIntosh, struck out.â€
â€œSo you didnâ€™t get to make it to home base?â€
He sighed again. â€œWell, I wouldâ€™ve if it werenâ€™t for Chris McIntosh.â€
For the first time since they met in the afternoon there was an awkward silence. Mary looked into the coffee cup to study the rings of residue at the bottom. Mort twirled the straw in his soda, pushing the ice cubes around the bottom of the glass.
â€œSo can I ask you something, Mary,â€ Mort finally said a minute or so later, breaking the silence.
â€œWhat if I came with youâ€¦ likeâ€¦ came with you on the train?â€
Years later, when retelling the story to her children, Mary always emphasized the fact that â€œthose were different timesâ€ and â€œit was a small town, not a big city.â€ When asked if she would do it again, she always refused to answer.
â€œOh, ummâ€¦ well Mort, Iâ€”â€
â€œâ€”You donâ€™t even know me. I know,â€ he conceded.
â€œThatâ€™s the truth though, Mort, so Iâ€™m not sure what to say,â€ Mary was trying to be both rational and sincere with her answers.
â€œLook, Iâ€™m a nice guy. Iâ€™ve lived in the town my whole life. Your life sounds interesting.â€ He paused to consider his next words carefully. â€œMy life here ainâ€™t going nowhereâ€¦ and your lifeâ€¦ it sounds like youâ€™re going somewhereâ€¦ and I want to go somewhere too.â€
That night Mary stayed at the woman from the train stationâ€™s house and Mort spent most of the night packing his things. The next morning they met at the same diner, had a breakfast of pancakes, hash browns, eggs, and coffee and left on the train at 10:50 a.m.
By the time the train arrived in Portland, Oregon Mary and Mort had fallen in love and decided to elope. Eleven months later, in February, 1955, their first child, Doreen, was born.
â€œMom, Grandma never told me that she ran away from home.â€
â€œWell,â€ Doreen said, â€œShe kept a lot of things secret, I guess.â€
â€œNo, Iâ€™m afraid thatâ€™s just not going to cut it.â€ He gritted his teeth as he held the cell phone between his ear and shoulder and tried to secure the rope to the steel ring on the side of the box. â€œWe needed this thing shipped out yesterday.â€ He continued fumbling with the ring and rope, finally getting the rope secured through the loop in a square knot. â€œLook, I donâ€™t care what he says anymore. This is out of his court. Itâ€™s our responsibility now.â€
The rain was pouring down and there were intermittent flashes of lightning and clashes of thunder. The whole situation reminded him of the time during the last war when the he was stationed on engaged in combat with a Saudi ship. The encounter was particularly bloody and the first major military battle fought on the sea during that war. Years later when things heated up in China, naval warfare in the South Pacific became more prevalent, but nothing was bad as that first meeting with the Saudis.
Constant downpour and the rocking of the small fishing boat caused him to lost his balance a little, causing his cell phone to drop and slide around on the main deck. â€œGoddamnit,â€ he yelled into the cold, damp, empty air. Nobody else was with him on the boat, but he felt the need vent his anger into the open anyway.
Once all the rings on each corner of the crate had the ropes secured to them, he went to the main deck to recover the cell phone. He dialed back to headquarters, wishing for a second that the cell phones they used back in 2008, last time he was in the middle of the ocean, worked as well as they do now.
â€œYeah?â€ the voice on the other end answered.
â€œI dropped the phone. Did you make any progress?â€
â€œSorry bro, no luck yet. He insists that it isnâ€™t a problem anymore.â€
â€œBut we both know it is,â€ he paused, taking a second to question the loyalty of his friend. â€œI mean, you do believe in this, donâ€™t you?â€
â€œOf course man, you know I do. Iâ€™ve been with you on this whole thing all along, remember?
â€œYeah, yeah.â€ He was only a slightly more reassured. â€œThen I guess weâ€™ll take things into our own hands again. We canâ€™t let them fuck it up this time.â€
â€œOkay. If you think thatâ€™s bestâ€¦ I mean, without the support of Mattâ€”â€
â€œâ€”Look, Matt Matson is a fuckinâ€™ lunatic anyway. If he had his way all along things would be a million times worse, remember?â€
â€œI know, but heâ€™sâ€”â€
â€œâ€”At this point, I donâ€™t care who he is or who they say he is or who he says he is. If all that shitâ€™s true, I donâ€™t think weâ€™d be in the mess right now anyway. Maybe he wants things to get worse.â€ He couldnâ€™t believe he was justifying his actions and beliefs again. Heâ€™d been over these arguments with the group so many times it he felt like a record spinning round and round.
â€œOkay, Iâ€™ve gotta take care of my shit here. Iâ€™ll give you guys a call in a few hours to let you know that everything went okay, cool?â€
â€œThanks Jordan â€“ we knew you could handle this.â€
Doreen gave birth to her son Matt in March of 1981. When Matt was born her husband and Mattâ€™s father, Jon, was away on a business trip to Miami, Florida.
â€œJon, isnâ€™t there any way you can fly back on an early flight or something? Doreen really needs you,â€ his sister, Melissa, scolded him two days before Doreen had Matthew. â€œItâ€™s going to be any day now. Donâ€™t you want to be there for your sonâ€™s birth?â€
â€œYou know I do, but Iâ€™ve got a meeting with the MacMallory Company tomorrow and if I land this accountâ€”â€
â€œâ€”Work, work, work. Thatâ€™s all it is with you sometimes, isnâ€™t it?â€
Matt was born at 11:21 p.m. Jon arrived at the hospital three hours later. He landed the account and planned to surprise Doreen, hopefully before she had the baby. His flight was supposed to leave Florida at 6 p.m., which meant the nonstop flight would land him in Seattle sometime around 9:30 p.m. (which was a six-and-a-half hour flight). Unfortunately, the plane was delayed, so Jon couldnâ€™t make it exactly when he wanted.
â€œIâ€™m sorry Mr. Matson, but there isnâ€™t anything we can do. The FAA requires that we fully inspect the plane when there are any concerns about the planeâ€™s integrity. Since a mechanic noticed some small cracks in one of the wings before loading, we have no choice â€“ and really itâ€™s the best choice we can make â€“ do ensure the safety of the aircraft before departure. Iâ€™m sure you understand, Mr. Matson.â€
Jon grumbled and returned to the waiting area. He had already finished reading the latest Mike Rosemann mystery/thriller novel, and was growing extremely anxious waiting. He considered calling Doreen or Melissa on his cell phone, but he genuinely thought that surprising them would make him look like Super Dad or something. He had no idea that Matt would come so soon, despite Melissaâ€™s desperate attempts to get him to return early.
When Matt was born he weighed five pounds, eight ounces and was twenty inches long. He had a pretty full head of jet black hair and piercing brown eyes. Doreenâ€™s parents came up from Oregon to be there for his birth. Jonâ€™s sister Melissa was the only other relative in attendance. All the nurses commended Doreen on her poise during the ordeal, and Melissa joked that if she ever got pregnant she would take lessons from Doreen on how to get through labor.
It was a seemingly perfect birth and Doreen and Matt were released from the hospital two days later. For dinner the first night Jon cooked one of Doreenâ€™s favorite soups, tomato basil, and treated her like when they first met years ago.
(probably gonna add some shit in here and/or totally rewrite this section and turn it into lots more stuff)
The first two years of Mattâ€™s life, which he doesnâ€™t even remember, were rather uneventful. Doreen stopped teaching at the University of Washington so that she could stay home and take care of him. Jon continued to overachieve at his job, providing his wife and son the comforts of life he wished he had while growing up. Matt had his own nursery, a chest full of toys and stuffed animals, and a wardrobe composed almost entirely of Baby Gap.
In November of 1983 Doreen gave birth to another child, Julia. Matt was too young at the time to realize the change a younger sister would have on his life. Mostly he was excited about her because he thought she was a new toy. Doreen and Jon made an effort not to divert their attention from Matt to Julia, and in the process probably ended up spoiling Matt more than anything.
Doreen found herself pregnant yet again in July 1984, but had a miscarriage.
When he woke up that morning, it felt just like any other morning. His high school started at 7:30 a.m., so he usually woke up around 5:45 a.m., which gave him just enough time to shower, eat breakfast, and catch the bus so that he arrived at school around 7:20 a.m.
That morning, however, Matt first woke up at 4:37 a.m. He couldâ€™ve sworn that he heard his alarm clock and that it jolted him from his dreams, but when he double-checked the alarm, it still displayed 5:45 a.m. as the time at which it would go off. Matt grumbled a bit, confused and disoriented by his unexpected wakening. His throat felt extremely dry, so he slowly got out of bed, grabbed the large plastic cup on the nightstand, and stumbled over to the door.
Once he reached the hallway an intense feeling of vertigo overcame him. The walls appeared to be vibrating and he heard a loud, dull buzzing that seemed to be emanating from inside his head. To his left, the hallway led down about twenty feet to the bathroom he shared with his sister Julia. To his right, the hallway led to a flight of stairs that lead down to the dining room and kitchen. He figured the strange walls and sounds would dissipate as he became more awake, so he leaned over and used his hand to guide him along the wall as he walked toward the stairs. The sound, however, only got worse, and he became even more dizzy and disoriented. The soft, smooth feel of the wallpaper that lined the hallway morphed into something dry and coarse. He tried to focus his eyesight on the wall, but the pale, dull off-white instead appeared as a film projection showing insects crawling all over each other and birds flying over and under them.
Startled by the bizarre hijacking of his senses, Matt fell to the ground and started crawling to the stairs. The floor, which was normally a short, soft crÃ¨me-colored carpet had turned into sticky mud, and Matt struggled to crawl through it, alternating between moments of slipping and moments of being stuck and unable to move. The mud was cold and gave Matt, who was only wearing a pair of his J. Crew boxers, a severe chill. Though just as he thought his hands were going to go completely numb, the mud heated up so that it felt like boiling oatmeal, and he instead worried that his hands were going to get burned.
As he attempted to crawl the short distance to the head of the stairs, where he figured, for some reason, that all of this strangeness would end, he tried to come up with an explanation for this hallucination or whatever it was.
The other day he was hanging out with a guy he met at a rave a few months ago named Jamie. Although he hadnâ€™t done any drugs for over a month and was trying to cut back (he used to smoke weed at least four times a week and partied on ecstasy once or twice a month for about two years straight), Jamie convinced him that smoking a little pot wouldnâ€™t be bad, so they filled up the pipe and smoked about four bowls that afternoon. Once they were high, Jamieâ€™s friend, Kirsten, came over. Matt held a secret crush for Kirsten since he first saw her on their first day of Algebra II last fall. The weed didnâ€™t really make him lethargic or sleepy, or even gave him the munchies. More so, it just made him extremely relaxed and content with the world â€“ and he giggled a lot. He had always smoked out with his guy friends, so he wasnâ€™t quite sure how to act around this guest of the opposite gender.
â€œUh hey Kirsten, do you remember me?â€ he slurred.
She wasnâ€™t high yet, but had already packed herself a bowl and picked up the pipe. Before taking a hit: â€œMatt, right? From algebra?â€
He grinned as she took her first hit, then laughed a little, surprised and happy that she actually knew who he was. â€œHaha, yah, thatâ€™s me!â€
By this point Jamie, who tended to fall asleep whenever he got stoned, was laying on the couch watching something on the television. â€œDonâ€™t mind me,â€ he said, though at this point both Matt and Kirsten had pretty much forgot he existed.
â€œIâ€™ve always thought you were really cute,â€ Matt said to Kirsten, ignoring Jamieâ€™s announcement. Apparently the weed made him less inhibited and more able to express his feelings.
â€œWow,â€ Kirsten responded, taking her third toke. â€œUmmâ€”â€
â€œâ€”Iâ€™m sorry, I know itâ€™s weird for me to say. I just wanted to, â€˜ya know?â€
â€œDonâ€™t mind me, lovebirds,â€ Jamie announced again in his half-awake or extremely stoned voice.
â€œNo, I like you too, I think.â€ She took another hit and started moving closer to Matt. She stopped once they were sitting right next to each other, shoulder-to-shoulder and seemed to freeze up.
â€œSoâ€¦ uhâ€¦â€ Matt muttered.
She didnâ€™t respond immediately, then burst out with some sudden jolt of energy, â€œSo Matt, do you know what shotgunning is?â€
â€œHere, open your mouth,â€ she commanded him. â€œAnd why donâ€™t you close your eyes too.â€ Matt reluctantly obeyed. With his eyes shut, he heard the click of her lighter and then the sound of her inhaling a big hit. Then he felt a warm, moist feeling near his mouth, and then he felt the wetness of her lips touching the sides of his lips. Started at first, he then felt his mouth filled with smoke coming from Kirsten. He fought his initial reaction to cough or push her away, and relaxed his throat, allowing him to swallow enough smoke to feel its effects. A few seconds later she moved her mouth away and he opened his eyes.
â€œThat was amazingâ€¦â€ he moaned.
â€œYeah, itâ€™s fun, huh?â€
â€œHaha. Yeah, I liked it.â€
â€œSo now itâ€™s your turn.â€
â€œYou mean you want me toâ€”â€
â€œâ€”Yeah, you do it to me.â€
Again, Matt followed her orders. He picked up the pipe, took a hit, held it in his throat, put his mouth over herâ€™s, and exhaled the smoked. As he was exhaling, she reached her arm around and placed it on the back of his head, holding their mouth-locked position. She slowly moved her tongue around her mouth so that it moved into his, and the two began kissing passionately.
The whole thing moved so quickly that it felt like a hazy dream for Matt. The next thing he knew, they were on the floor with their pants down fucking awkwardly like the high schoolers they were.
â€œDonâ€™t cum in me, okay?â€ she said as he was thrusting against her.
â€œNo, I wonâ€™t,â€ he uttered.
â€œWhen you get close, just shoot on the floor or something, we can wipe it up later.â€
He groaned an affirmative and kept working at her. The weed was making it hard for him to concentrate as much as he wanted to, and although it felt good for him, he was concerned that Kirsten was disappointed at his performance. She simply laid back on the floor with her legs spread, resting on her elbows so that she was propped up enough to occasionally kiss him. Sometimes she made a few whimpers and moans, but mostly she was silent. The only sounds he could hear were Jamieâ€™s snoring and the wet, somewhat sticky sound of his cock going in and out of her.
â€œOkayâ€¦ Iâ€¦ I thinkâ€¦ Iâ€™m getting closeâ€¦â€ he stuttered.
Kirsten moved her body back a little, forcing Mattâ€™s penis out of her and he stroked himself until he shot a healthy-sized load on the floor.
â€œWeâ€™ll have to make sure to wipe that up,â€ Kirsten explained matter-of-factly.
â€œUh, yeah,â€ Matt said, reaching over to grab their underwear. He handed her the pair of black silk panties she was wearing. She smiled, slipped them on, then reached over for her jeans.
â€œSo I should be getting home and stuff,â€ she said as she stood up. â€œI just told my mom that I was stopping over at Jamieâ€™s to get some stuff for school.â€
â€œUh, yeah. Thatâ€™s cool.â€ He wasnâ€™t sure what else to say to her. He had had sex before, with two different people, even. But both of those girls were his girlfriends at the time, so it wasnâ€™t casual at all. He remembered frequently being annoyed when, after having sex, the girls always wanted to lay in bed and talk or just hold each other. He felt strange being in the opposite position. He wanted to kiss Kirsten again, or say, â€œThat was really greatâ€ or â€œI really think youâ€™re prettyâ€ or something to acknowledge what they just did.
â€œSo Iâ€™ll see you at school tomorrow?â€ she asked.
â€œSure, yeah. Iâ€™ll be there.â€
Once she left, Matt cleaned up the mess on the carpet, left Jamie to sleep, and walked home, dazed highness from the smoking and the sex.
That night Matt had trouble getting to sleep. He felt extremely anxious and paranoid. Normally when he did drugs he didnâ€™t suffer any after-effects â€“ this time seemed to be different though. At one point, during dinner, he refused to eat his momâ€™s stir-fry, convinced that there were small beetles hiding among the vegetables and noodles.
â€œIâ€™m just not hungry, I guess,â€ he lied. â€œI ate some stuff at Jamieâ€™s house earlier.â€
Once he did get to sleep, he had a dream about flying and then being naked during a class presentation â€“ both recurring themes in his dreams, but never occupying a single dream simultaneously. When he awoke the next morning he felt fine. When he saw Kirsten at school, they pretended not to know each other. He figured everything that happened that afternoon was behind him just like any other bad/strange day from oneâ€™s life.
But as he struggled across the floor to the stairs, he couldnâ€™t help but wonder if Jamie hooked up him with bad weed or his body was having some allergic reaction or something. The confusion of why this was happening to him only added to the utter confusion of the entire situation.
Nonetheless, he continued climbing along the sticky/slippery, cold/hot floor until he reached the stairs. Something told him that once he got out of this hallway everything would be alright.
Putting one hand out, then another, with his knees sliding behind him, he crawled until finally something felt different. He lifted his right hand from the ground, moved it slightly forward in mid-air, then reached ahead of him to place it back on the ground. When he thought his hand was going to stop at the floor, it kept going, and the next thing he knew he was somersaulting down the hard, wooden stairs. All he could hear was an intense ringing in his ears. All he could see was a bright, but dull, light in front of his eyes, intensifying each time his head hit one of the solid steps.
It felt like he fell for five minutes, but what was really only a twenty second fall ultimately left him at the bottom of the stairs, sore and weak. He couldnâ€™t even move and finally drifted out of consciousness.
When he awoke he realized he was on a bed of some sort. He couldnâ€™t see clearly, but he could make out the blurry image of a person hovering over him. He winked and moaned a little to alert this person of his reemergence.
â€œMatt? Matt? Are you awake now?â€ the voice shrieked. It was his mother.
â€œMmmm,â€ he groaned.
â€œHold on, Iâ€™ll get the doctor.â€ She quickly rushed out. The clicking noise of her boots echoed in his head.
â€œâ€¦ and I was just standing there and he opened his eyes and I heard him make a noise, so that meanâ€™s heâ€™s okay, right? I mean, he just fell. Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s no big deal, right? I mean, he has school andâ€¦â€ he could hear his mom talking to doctorâ€™s ear off as the two of them entered the room.
â€œSo youâ€™re awake now, huh Matt?â€ the doctor asked him in a patronizing tone. He appeared to be in his mid-fifties, with a head of brown hair that was thinning and growing grey. He face appeared to have some stubble on it and sprouts of random hairs jutted from both his ears and neckline.
Matt responded to the doctorâ€™s question by groaning an affirmative and nodding a little, until he realized that his head hurt too much to move it much. He then realized his mouth was still dry. â€œWater?â€ he begged.
â€œOh, yes, I suppose you want some water, donâ€™t you?â€ He pointed over to the bathroom in the corner of the room and directed Mattâ€™s mom to fetch some water. â€œSheâ€™ll get you some, kiddo, then youâ€™ll be okay.â€
Matt wanted to groan â€“ nobody had called him â€œkiddoâ€ except for his grandpa, on his fatherâ€™s side, and that was at least ten years ago. His mom quickly returned with a plastic cup filled with lukewarm water, which Matt quickly drank.
â€œMiss,â€ the doctor then said to Mattâ€™s mom, â€œIâ€™m going to have to ask Matt here some questions. Would you mind leaving the room?â€
â€œUmm, sure, I guess.â€ She was somewhat taken aback. Her son had just woken up from, she didnâ€™t even know what, and now the doctor was telling her to leave suddenly. â€œIâ€™ll just be sitting out in the waiting area?â€
â€œThatâ€™ll be fine. Iâ€™ll get you when Matt and I here are finished.â€
She nodded, grabbed her bag and coat from the chair next to Mattâ€™s bed, and left the room. Once she left, the doctor closed the door.
â€œSo Matt, what is the last thing you remember?â€
â€œWell, it was earlyâ€¦ like I think 4:30 or somethingâ€¦ and I thought my alarm went offâ€”â€
â€œâ€”What time does it normally go off?â€
â€œAt 5:45, usually.â€
â€œAnd did you change your alarm setting the night before?â€
â€œNoâ€¦ I donâ€™t think I did, at least.â€
â€œMmhmm,â€ the doctor nodded quizzically. â€œThen what?â€
â€œUmm, well, I remember getting out of bed to get some water.â€ He paused, trying to remember what happened next.
â€œAnd then?â€ the doctor seemed to be impatient.
â€œI guess I got out of bed, then went down the hall to head downstairs.â€
â€œAnd you just fell down the stairs?â€
â€œI donâ€™t remember falling, no. I remember feeling dizzy.â€
â€œI see.â€ The doctor took some notes on his tablet. The sound of the pencil on the notepad sent shivers up Mattâ€™s spine. The doctor wrote hard and fast, which made the scratching even more intense. â€œI think weâ€™ll need to get some blood drawn and take a look at that,â€ he concluded.
â€œWhy? What do you need my blood for?â€
â€œJust so we can run some routine tests,â€ the doctor explained.
â€œI mean, do you have to though?â€
â€œWhy, is something wrong?â€
â€œNo, itâ€™s justâ€¦ Iâ€™m really afraid of needles,â€ Matt lied. He wasnâ€™t entirely sure why, but he was terrified of giving his blood over to have it analyzed by anonymous lab technicians. Perhaps, he thought, it was the idea of his blood containing all his secrets, all his genetic code. He remembered reading an article in his biology class about extracting a â€œDNA fingerprintâ€ from a personâ€™s blood and using that â€œfingerprintâ€ to track down serial killers. And in another class he read an article about using samples of a personâ€™s blood to predict whether they would have cancer or whether they had HIV or some other life-threatening condition. What if the doctors found something in him â€“ what if they gave him a death sentence? Wouldnâ€™t he rather just keep his blood to himself?
â€œLook, to be honest Matt,â€ the doctor set down his pad and moved closer to Matt, as if to feign compassion, â€œIâ€™m concerned about your situation. Itâ€™s not normal for a seventeen year-old man to suddenly collapse and fall down stairs.â€ He paused, realizing that he was only making the situation worse. â€œI mean, you could have an iron or some other vitamin deficiency, or maybe youâ€™ve just come down with a flu bug â€“ either way, I think itâ€™s best that we find out.â€
Matt nodded, realizing that no matter what he said, he couldnâ€™t escape giving his blood. Even if he didnâ€™t consent, the doctor would talk to his mom, and certainly his mother would coerce him into letting the doctor take a sample. â€œOkay, okay. Just do it quickly, okay?â€
The doctor nodded, then headed over to a small, locked cabinet in the corner of the room. He removed a small, green plastic device and a little glass pipette.
â€œUmmâ€¦ do you really think, though, that I should be giving blood â€“ I still feel a little dizzy and stuff,â€ Matt tried to argue.
â€œYouâ€™ll be fine. All I need is a little prick. See,â€ he held out the green plastic device. â€œIâ€™ll just put this over your finger and press down. It will puncture the skin just enough so that I can use this,â€ he pointed over to the glass pipette, â€œto extract just teensy bit of blood.â€
Matt solemnly nodded and extended his hand. He couldnâ€™t help but watch as the doctor pricked Mattâ€™s finger. The small razor going into him felt more like an intense, sharp burn. He then felt a little light headed, and let his arm and head relax back into their resting positions. The doctor was too preoccupied with getting the blood from Mattâ€™s finger to enter the pipette that he didnâ€™t notice that in the meantime Matt had apparently passed out again.
A few minutes later Matt regained consciousness and was startled by the audience that had assembled to watch him sleep, or whatever it was, in bed. The doctor, who he remembered was in the room before he fainted, was joined by his mother, father, and sister (apparently his father and Julia had been in the waiting lounge all along).
â€œAre you there Matt?â€ the doctor asked.
Matt gave his now-perfected affirmative grunt.
â€œGood heavens! What keeps happening, Matthew?â€ his mother asked, one hand slightly covering his mouth and the other grasping Mattâ€™s fatherâ€™s arm.
â€œI dunno, but I really think everything is all right mom, for real,â€ Matt answered nonchalantly.
She looked over at the doctor to see whether he would agree with Mattâ€™s self-diagnosis or refute it. â€œHmmâ€ was all that he gave her. He looked down at his notepad again, flipped through some pages, then started tapping the eraser of his pencil on his teeth. â€œIâ€™m just not sure,â€ he finally said. â€œI think it would be best if Matt stayed at the hospital tonight so we could monitor him. Weâ€™ll move him over into the general day-stay ward for the night and Iâ€™ll reevaluate him in the morning.â€
â€œSo do you think itâ€™s anything serious, doctor?â€ His mother was unsure how to exactly read the doctorâ€™s response. At least he didnâ€™t have to do more tests, she thought, or spend the night in the intensive unit or anything like that. But at the same time, she told herself, the doctor wasnâ€™t telling her not to worry or that Matt was just exhausted or anything like that. â€œI mean, what should we do?â€
â€œI think,â€ the doctor started, then paused for a second, â€œI think the best thing, Mrs. Matson, is for you and your husband to go home and rest easy. Iâ€™m sure Matt will be just fine.â€
That was the reassurance she was looking for, though her husband was less skeptical. â€œAre you sure, doctor. I mean, I can take the day off tomorrow and spend the night here with him, if you think that would help?â€
â€œMr. Matson, I assure you, Matt is in fine hands here at Sexton Memorial Hospital,â€ the doctor addressed Mattâ€™s father in a very detached, business-like tone. â€œHe will receive nothing but the finest care and compassion.â€
â€œUh-huh,â€ Mattâ€™s father accidentally let out. â€œOkay, well. Thatâ€™s that, I guess.â€
â€œIf anything comes up weâ€™ll certainly call you. But if you donâ€™t mind, I think we need to run a few more tests and get Matt setup on the other ward.â€ The doctor watched Mattâ€™s motherâ€™s face drop. â€œBut we do have visiting hours later this evening, so you can stop by then.â€
Mattâ€™s mother nodded and the family quietly shuffled out of the room after showering him with small but affection kisses and â€œI love youâ€s. Julia also left behind a small teddy bear with a heart sewed to its chest with the word â€œMattâ€ in it. She had bought it at a craft store the other month and was saving it for some special occasion, and figured that a trip to the hospital was special enough.
â€œIâ€™ll stop by later this evening with a change of clothes, Matt. Iâ€™ll bring those sweatpants you like and Iâ€™ll have Julia get a shirt,â€ Mattâ€™s mom explained. Matt only responded with a smile.
Once Mattâ€™s family left, the doctor explained that the technicians were still running tests on Mattâ€™s blood and that for now all they could do was wait. This meant that they might need to get some x-rays later, but for the time being, he would move Matt into another ward and that everything was going to be okay. â€œOh, and I think youâ€™ll be sharing the room with another patient, is that okay? I think heâ€™s your age.â€
As if he had a choice.
After a fairly long trip through the hospital in a wheelchair (the doctor wasnâ€™t sure that Matt should necessary be walking so soon), Matt arrived in the mustard-colored room where he would be spending the night. The room was divided into two with a single curtain, and Matt could already hear that his roommate was watching television. Immediately after Matt and the doctor entered the room, a nurse followed with some sheets for the bed.
â€œHi Ieisha,â€ the doctor started. â€œThis is Matt.â€ The nurse smiled. â€œWould you mind introducing Matt to his roommate?â€
â€œUh sure, just let me get these sheets on first, I guess.â€ She didnâ€™t seem particularly thrilled about the idea of playing matchmaker or whatever she was supposed to call it. She was a nurse. She was in this job for the medicine, not the people. But anywayâ€¦
â€œSam,â€ the nurse yelled to the person behind the blue, sterile curtain. â€œIâ€™d like to introduce you toâ€¦â€ she had already forgotten Mattâ€™s name and looked to the doctor for her cue.
â€œMatt,â€ the doctor half-whispered â€“ loud enough so Sam could her it, but soft enough so that he sounded like he was attempting to be sneaky.
â€œYes, Matt. Sam: this is Matt. Matt: this is Sam,â€ the nurse quickly finished. She didnâ€™t even bother to move the curtain so they could see each other face-to-face. Once the nurse finished preparing Mattâ€™s bed, she gave him and the doctor a curt smile and left the room. The doctor, somewhat flustered by the nurseâ€™s, what he thought was, rude behavior, pulled open the curtain and forced the two to have a more formal introduction.
Sam, it turned out, whose last name was â€œNot,â€ which the doctor found extremely funny, was in the hospital because he had his appendix out two days ago. He was originally from New Orleans, Louisiana but moved to Washington with his family when he was twelve because his dad got a position at Microsoft. He hoped to go to college somewhere on the east coast and wanted to eventually go into politics â€“ perhaps as a U.S. senator or representative. He was one of those people who had everything in life planned out. â€œIt pisses me off that my appendix had to give out or whatever the weekend of my S.A.T.s. Now Iâ€™m not sure if I can take them in time to do early admission, which basically throws off my whole plan,â€ Sam vented to the doctor, who seemed to, unlike Matt, genuinely care.
â€œIf you could just tell me your full name, I can go ahead and process the forms for you.â€
â€œOkay,â€ the voice trembled. â€œMy name is Andrea.â€
â€œAnd your last name, Andrea.â€
â€œAnd how is that spelt Mrs. Not?â€
â€œMiss Not. My husband left me. And itâ€™s N-O-T. Like when something isnâ€™t, not like what you tie.â€
â€œOkay Miss Not, and is this your first time here?â€
â€œYes. Iâ€™ve never been here before.â€
â€œAnd what about your son? Is it his first time as well?â€
â€œYes, his first time as well.â€ She stopped to think for a second. Was this really the right thing to do? Would she regret this five, ten, twenty years down the road? Her former husband, Mr. Ronald Not would certainly object to this. So would her mother and her father and most definitely her sister. Yes, her sister, Michelle, would certainly be the most upset at her decision. But what did it all matter, really? It was her life and she had never been one to let others control her. Why should she start now? But stillâ€¦ something about the whole situation bothered her and she couldnâ€™t help but second guess herself. Maybe she should turn back? â€œUmm, mâ€™am?â€ she asked reluctantly.
â€œYes Miss Not?â€
â€œIf I go ahead with this, is there any, umm, is there any turning back? I mean, what if I change my mind later?â€
The woman chuckled. â€œOf course there is.â€ She paused for a second, realizing her laughter and reassurance probably wasnâ€™t enough of an answer for Miss Not. â€œThis is an experimental program,â€ she restarted, slowly this time. â€œThe last thing we want is for you or your son, Sam is his name?â€ Miss Not nodded so the woman could continue. â€œYes, we certainly donâ€™t want you or Sam to feel uncomfortable or awkward in any way. In fact, not only would it defeat the purpose of the program, but it would also, I can only imagine, skew our results.â€
â€œThank you, that is reassuring,â€ Miss not answered, and finished filling out the forms. Once everything was signed and dated, she brought the clipboard over to the screener at the receptionistâ€™s desk.
The woman smiled. â€œIâ€™ll take these back to Dr. Riese and heâ€™ll be out in a few moments to get you.â€ Miss Not nodded.
Sam was at a small table in the corner of the waiting room playing with some large blocks â€“ building a house or something like that. â€œHeâ€™s always building and tearing down houses,â€ his mother had to explain to people whenever they were out in public. He was always drawing or building or doing something creative to keep himself occupied. And nine times out of ten it involved houses. â€œI think he misses the house we lived in before Ronald and I separated, maybe,â€ was her only explanation. â€œI guess he has a thing for houses?â€
After waiting somewhere around fifteen minutes, most of which Miss Not spent reading through the assortment of health magazines littered throughout the waiting room, Dr. Riese came out and called for â€œMrs. Not and her son Samuel.â€
â€œItâ€™s Miss. Iâ€™m divorced,â€ she explained. â€œAnd he prefers to go by Sam.â€
â€œOh, Iâ€™m sorry about that.â€ He seemed flustered by her correction. â€œWill you please follow me,â€ he paused, â€œMiss Not.â€
She nodded. â€œSam, itâ€™s time, honey.â€ He groaned a little, but knew better than to get into an argument. He quickly disassembled the castle or cabin or whatever it was that he had built and jumped up to follow his mom back into the doctorâ€™s office.
â€œSo yeah, I think eventually I want to go into politics maybe?â€
â€œThat cool.â€ Matt still had no idea about what he wanted to do with his life. In fact, the worst part about his senior year of high school so far had been everyone always asking what his plans were for after graduation. He didnâ€™t have any intentions of attending college nor did he have any aspiration to join the â€œreal worldâ€ or whatever they called it and get a â€œrealâ€ job. â€œYeah, well, Iâ€™m not sure what I want to do, â€˜ya know?â€
Sam seemed a little surprised. â€œYou mean you arenâ€™t going to college?â€
â€œNah, I donâ€™t think so. I mean, it might be cool and all, but I guess right now itâ€™s just not for me, â€˜ya know?â€
â€œYeah, that makes sense. For me, it was like, there was never any question about whether I would go to college or not.â€ He laughed. â€œI think my mom has been telling me since I was six that there was no way in hell I wasnâ€™t going to college.â€
For the first time since the two started talking earlier in the afternoon they hit an awkward silence. Sam reached over to the television remote control by his bed and changed the channel. Matt adjusted his pillow and changed the incline on the bed slightly.
â€œSo, uh, are you more democrat or republican?â€ Matt asked, trying to both break the ice again and sound somewhat intellectual.
â€œI would say Iâ€™m an independent,â€ Sam started as he launched into what seemed like a some sort of a campaign speech. â€œYou see, I agree with the republicans when it comes to financial things â€“ like making sure the budget is balanced and not giving too much money to countries in need of foreign aid. But when it comes to social issues, Iâ€™m definitely more of a democrat. Like I believe in equal rights and I support public education and that sort of stuff. I definitely donâ€™t like Newt Gingrich, though.â€
â€œThatâ€™s cool. My mom and dad are both democrats. I donâ€™t think theyâ€™ve ever voted republican ever,â€ Matt explained, trying to add something to the conversation.
â€œSee, I hate that.â€ Then he explained slowly and carefully, as if it were the biggest deal in the world to him, â€œYou shouldnâ€™t vote party line. Itâ€™s all about the person, â€˜ya know? Like when I vote in the upcoming election, Iâ€™m going to study each candidate and only vote for the ones I agree with â€“ democrat or republican.â€
â€œThatâ€™s probably the best thing to do, I suppose.â€ Matt wasnâ€™t sure where else to take this conversation, considering the fact he was totally apolitical and didnâ€™t really follow the news or anything.
After another awkward silence, which Matt spent staring out the window across the room, pretending that he was intently watching something, and which Sam spent flipping through channels on the television, Sam took the initiative to start conversation.
â€œSo do you still have your appendix?â€
â€œYou know, like, your appendix. Itâ€™s some organ on the right side of your bodyâ€¦ they donâ€™t really know what itâ€™s for or anything and sometimes people get them taken outâ€¦â€
â€œOh, yah, sorry, I wasnâ€™t sure what you meant.â€ Matt coughed. â€œYes, I still have my appendix, I think.â€
â€œâ€¦You donâ€™t know?â€
â€œYouâ€™d know if you got it out.â€ Sam laughed briefly, then coughed, then groaned in pain briefly. â€œI forgot that I canâ€™t really laugh. â€œBut yah, youâ€™d remember the surgery.â€
â€œOh, then I guess I still have mine.â€
â€œMine was full of a bunch of stuff and got infected or whatever so they had to take it out,â€ Sam explained.
â€œThat sucks dude.â€
â€œYeah. And I guess now theyâ€™re going to analyze whatever was in it â€˜cause itâ€™s supposed to show if Iâ€™m sick or anything.â€
â€œSick with what?â€
â€œOh, I donâ€™t know. Just like, how healthy I am.â€ Sam realized he was bullshitting Matt now, just for the fun of it. â€œLike they can do some molecular analysis and figure out how my blood levels are doing and whatnot. I guess they have specialists who are really good read reading appendices â€“ thatâ€™s plural for appendix.â€
â€œUh huhâ€¦â€ Matt tried to sound moderately interested.
â€œAll the extra stuff in your body just floats to your appendix. I think itâ€™s like it stores stuff that body doesnâ€™t want or need.â€
â€œSo what do you think is in my appendix?â€ Matt asked, trying to both test Samâ€™s apparent knowledge about appendices â€“ though Matt hadnâ€™t taken biology since his sophomore year of high school, he had a sneaking suspicion that Sam was just making shit up â€“ and to change the direction of the conversation.
â€œWell, what was the last thing you ate?â€
â€œUmm, probably the lasagna my mom made for dinner the other night.â€
â€œAnd before that?â€
â€œWell we had some salad with the lasagna.â€
â€œOkay, thatâ€™s good to know.â€ Sam was starting to act like he was assuming the role of an interrogator or something. â€œAnd for lunch?â€
â€œOh manâ€¦ ummâ€¦ I had a grilled cheese sandwich with fries.â€
â€œAnything on the fries?â€
â€œUh, ketchup and some mayonnaise.â€
â€œAnd to drink?â€
â€œA bottle of Cherry Coke.â€
â€œI told you I had lasâ€”â€
â€œNo, to drink. What did you drink at dinner?â€
â€œOh, my mom always makes me drink milk.â€
â€œFat free? One percent? Two percent?â€
â€œWhy does that matter?â€
â€œYouâ€™ll seeâ€¦â€ Sam was certainly taking this seriously, Matt thought, so heâ€™d best answer as accurately as possible.
â€œWe always have two percent.â€
â€œOkay. Do you remember what you had the day before?â€
â€œWhat about breakfast?â€ Matt thought he out-smarted Sam by catching something he forgot.
â€œActually, I donâ€™t think breakfast matters,â€ Sam lied, trying to cover his mistake. â€œBy the time you go to bed the body manages to use all of the nutrients and recycle all of the waste that you consume at breakfast.â€ Sam was pretty impressed with the on-the-fly excuse he managed to cook up.
â€œOh, well, okay then.â€ He paused for a second, trying to remember what he ate the day before. â€œWell, on Sunday, for lunch I had an egg salad sandwich with some chips. To drink I had a glass of apple juice â€“ I think it was like one of those â€˜made from less than ten percent actual apple juicesâ€™ kind of a drink. Uh, for dinner, on Sundays my mom always makes like a pretty big meal, and we had this really good leg of lamb with a bunch of herbs and stuff on it, which she said was pretty lean and low in fat, with mashed potatoes, which she made from scratch, and some corn. And to drinkâ€”â€
â€œâ€”To drink you had two percent milk?â€
â€œAnything else you should tell me?â€
â€œOkay then, let me figure all this out.â€ Sam felt somewhat voyeuristic with this slightly intimate knowledge about Mattâ€™s daily life. Although it was just the food he consumed, minus, of course, whatever he had for breakfast, which would actually prove to be pretty interesting, but he couldnâ€™t risk retracting his previous â€œbreakfast doesnâ€™t matterâ€ statement, there was something about the itemized consumption that made Sam more than a little excited. Or maybe more curious and intrigued than excited? But whatever the feeling was, it struck Sam off-guard.
He looked up at the ceiling for a while and pretended to count off fingers on his hand, feigning some sort of advanced calculation or analysis inside his head. After a few minutes, he finally arrived at an answer: â€œOkay, so here is what I think probably ended up in your appendix. Of course, Iâ€™m hardly an expert, so I canâ€™t make any promises.â€ He took a pause, trying to make the revelation even more dramatic for Matt, who, he worried, might not even care in the first place. â€œSo first of all, the lamb is completely gone. Iâ€™m sure your body used everything from that somehow or another. The mashed potatoes, on the other hand, Iâ€™m guessing that maybe a quarter of however much you ate of those ended up in your appendix somehow. Maybe a little born, but I think most of that went through, or is going through, your intestines. As for the egg salad you had for lunch that day, I would guess that anywhere between one-sixth and one-fourth of that went to your appendix. And definitely the chips.â€ He took another pause, preparing to explain what happened to the food Matt ate the day of the night he came to the hospital. â€œSo on Monday, I think, as a rule, pretty much forty percent of all food prepared in school cafeterias goes to your appendix. I know thatâ€™s a lot, but itâ€™s just how it is. The Cherry Coke, on the other hand, I think all of that went to your appendix, where it served a special purpose. I think the interaction of the other food, particularly the egg salad, and the carbonation of the Cherry Coke somehow countered each other and the fizz and whatnot sort of ate away ate a bunch of whatever was in your appendix at the timeâ€”â€
â€œLike when you leave a penny in a bottle of Coke for a long time?â€ Matt had to break in somehow.
â€œYouâ€™ve never heard that?â€ Sam drew a blank face so Matt continued. â€œOkay, so I donâ€™t know if itâ€™s true or not, but I heard that if you leave a penny in a bottle of Coke for a few days or something that the penny will dissolve, or maybe the copper dissolves off the face of it or something, Iâ€™m not sureâ€¦ Itâ€™s like, corrosive acids or something like that.â€
â€œOh, wow. Thatâ€™s cool. I didnâ€™t know that.â€ Sam was slightly annoyed that Matt tried to steal his thunder during his complex report, but at the same time, glad that it added validity to Samâ€™s story.
â€œAnyway,â€ Sam continued, â€œLike I said, the chemical reaction between the Cherry Coke and the egg salad had,â€ he looked over at Matt and smiled, â€œa corrosive effect, as you call it.â€ Matt nodded. Sam kept going. â€œSo that cleared up a bunch of stuff. But the lasagna at dinner probably made things a little worse, though it depends if your mom made it with ground beef or sausage.â€
He looked over at Matt for an answer. â€œUmm, Iâ€™m pretty sure it was sausage, actually.â€
â€œOkay, so sausage is more artificial than ground beef, so I would estimate that two-thirds of that waste went into the appendix. But the salad â€“ I donâ€™t think any of the salad would go in, since itâ€™s healthy and all.â€ He took another pause, trying to rmember if he left anything out. â€œSo, yah, basically thatâ€™s whatâ€™s in your appendix.â€
â€œMmmhmmm, so basically everything Iâ€™ve eaten recently except for the lamb.â€ Matt reflected for a second. â€œWhy did you need to know about the milk?â€
â€œOh,â€ Sam got excited. â€œHow could I forget! The milk,â€ he waited a second so he had time to figure out what the milk did. â€œThe milk, you see, because it has so much calcium and protein, that helped bind some of the other food together. So I guess any meal that you ate with milk, letâ€™s estimate that the milk reduced the amount of food going into your appendix by roughly twenty percent.â€
â€œWow, thatâ€™s a lot.â€
â€œYeah, thatâ€™s why itâ€™s so important and thatâ€™s why I needed to know all the details about it.â€ Matt nodded. â€œI can only tell you, though, whatâ€™s in your appendix. If you want to know what all that means and how healthy you are, I think you need to have it removed and analyzed by a specialist.â€
â€œWell, I think one hospital visit is enough for me. I donâ€™t plan on having mine out anytime soon.â€ Matt chuckled, then got more serious. â€œSo where did you learn all that stuff?â€
â€œUhh, well,â€ Sam stuttered as he stalled for enough time to quip up another story. â€œBefore I had mine out, they basically explained to me everything about appendixes.â€
â€œOh, yah, whatever.â€
â€œDude, I gotta say,â€ Matt started, â€œyou are one hell of a bullshiter.â€ He laughed to himself.
â€œOh come on Sam, you think I really believed all that?â€
â€œNo, dude, Iâ€™m not mad or anything. That was genius.â€ The excitement in Mattâ€™s voice convinced Sam that he honestly was impressed with his story, which made him a little more at ease. â€œLike, you should be a writer or a doctor or something.â€
â€œYeah, well, I dunnoâ€¦â€
â€œSo yeah, we think it could just be food poisoning, since Julia is sick and all now,â€ Mattâ€™s mom explained.
â€œWow, and you heard about the recall on the news?â€ Matt asked, relieved that there was nothing wrong with him.
â€œNo, no. Mrs. Denys, who works with your father, had mentioned it to him when he called in and said he wouldnâ€™t be at work tomorrow either. She actually recommended the butcher weâ€™ve been going to for years now.â€ She paused, looking slightly exasperated by the source of the information. â€œAnd he said that apparently there was some problem at the slaughterhouse â€“ that they didnâ€™t properly pasteurize the lambâ€™s meat and it had somehow gotten contaminated with cowâ€™s blood and the cow had some disease that it got from eating pigs or something.â€ She sighed. â€œIt all sounds very complicated and gross, if you ask me. Now I understand why my mother was a vegetarian.â€
â€œAnd what is Julia sick with?â€
â€œWell, shortly after we got back from the hospital she complained about her stomach and then, you know, started to throw up for a while.â€
â€œWhat about you and dad?â€
â€œOh, well, weâ€™re both fine, I guess.â€ She contemplated for a second. â€œThough now that you mention it, after dinner that night your father did say that his stomach felt a little uneasy â€“ but I just figured it was his heartburn acting up again.â€
â€œOh, so do you think the doctor will release me?â€
â€œI donâ€™t see why not. I donâ€™t think itâ€™s severe food poisoning, or anything like that.â€
â€œCool.â€ Although Matt was slightly skeptical of his momâ€™s explanation â€“ if his sister just got a stomach ache and his dad got heartburn, why did he have strange hallucinations and pass out? â€“ he was excited to leave the hospital, despite for fairly decent acquaintance he had made with Sam.
â€œWell, I just wanted to stop by and let you know that. The woman at the desk said that your doctor wonâ€™t be back until 7 or so, so I figure weâ€™ll all come by around then.â€
â€œOh yay, so that means Iâ€™ll still get dinner tonight,â€ Matt joked.
â€œWell, when you get home we still have some left over lamb I can heat up for you,â€ his mom joked back.
Matt drifted in and out of sleep for the rest of the evening as Sam continued alternately flipping through channels on the television and taking breaks to read some of the newspaper that his mom, who visited earlier, had left for him.
Finally, the doctor came and awoke him.
â€œMatt? Matt? Are you awake now?â€ he said after gently tapping his shoulder and shaking him slightly. â€œMatt?â€
Matt groggily opened his eyes. â€œHuh?â€
â€œHi Matt, itâ€™s your doctor.â€
â€œHuh?â€ It took Matt a few seconds to process everything. Finally he sat up a little more and rubbed his eyes â€“ they had collected an abnormal amount of gunk during the nap. â€œOh, sorry. Hi.â€
â€œMatt? Can I talk to you?â€
â€œUh sure, yah. Okay.â€
The doctor reached around and slid the curtain in order to give them some privacy.
â€œAre your parents coming back tonight, Matt?â€ The doctored seemed a little concerned, which worried Matt.
â€œUmm, yeah, pretty soon Iâ€™m guessing.â€ Disturbed by the doctorâ€™s tone and agitated facial expressions, Matt decided that he should explain to the doctor about the food poisoning. â€œActually, though,â€ he started, â€œmy mom came this afternoon and she thinks she knows what happenedâ€¦â€
â€œOh?â€ the doctor, obviously skeptical, asked.
â€œWell, yah, see, my dad and sister had stomach aches recently, and I guess my mom heard from the butcher that she went to the other day that there was some contamination problem with the lamb we had for dinner the other night.â€ He paused, waiting for the doctor to react. When the doctorâ€™s face remained skeptically unresponsive, Matt decided to add more. â€œAnd so I guess somehow some other blood got on the lamb, and other people are sick from it too, I think. So itâ€™s probably just some food poisoning I guess.â€
â€œHmm,â€ the doctor said, tapping a pencil on his notepad, â€œWhen did you say your parents were going to be here?â€
â€œMy mom said sometime after 7. She wanted to talk to you.â€
â€œOkay, good. Iâ€™ll wait until they get here then.â€ He slid the curtain back to the wall. â€œWhen they get here, if they donâ€™t find me first, just buzz the nurse and have her get me, okay?â€
Matt nodded, extremely unsettled by the doctorâ€™s strange behavior.
Without another word, the doctor briskly left the room.
â€œSo,â€ Samâ€™s voice started at the other end of the room, â€œI couldnâ€™t help but kind of over hear that â€“ whatâ€™s going on?â€
â€œUmm, yeah, Iâ€™m not sure eitherâ€¦â€ Mattâ€™s voice trailed off.
â€œYour doctor is weird, man.â€ Sam laughed.
About fifteen minutes later, Mattâ€™s mother and father showed up with the doctor. Without even acknowledging Mattâ€™s presence the doctor immediately went to slid the curtain, which obviously gave them no privacy since Sam could hear everything anyway. He was courteous enough, at least, to pull up chairs so Mattâ€™s parents could sit. The doctor stood, and once Mattâ€™s parents were seated, immediately began talking.
After a few minutes of, what Matt later described as, â€œa pretty lame attempt at making us all feel good even though he was obviously prepping us for bad news,â€ the doctor dropped the bombshell:
â€œWe havenâ€™t, yet, at least, been able to identify the virus, but it does appear to have completely invaded your bodyâ€™s defenses.â€
Mattâ€™s fatherâ€™s face twitched and his eyes glazed over. Mattâ€™s mom didnâ€™t move, either, with an equally stunned look on her face.
â€œWe havenâ€™t ruled out whether or not it might be a strain of HIV or some other sort of a retrovirus.â€
Matt felt the blood drain from his face. He felt extremely hot and sweaty and couldnâ€™t feel his hands. He felt like he wanted to vomit, but couldnâ€™t even animate his body enough to do that.
â€œOr it could be an rhinovirus like the common cold â€“ like I said, we just arenâ€™t sure,â€ the doctor said, in what seemed to be some sort of an attempt at being somewhat optimistic. â€œWeâ€™ve sent a culture out to U-dub and hopefully they will know something by tomorrow.â€
The doctor waited in silence. Matt, his mother, nor his father could say anything.
â€œI know this is difficult news, and I truly sympathize with you.â€
â€œHowâ€¦ whereâ€¦ how could he have, umm, gotten this, doctor?â€ Mattâ€™s father finally asked.
â€œYes, well, until we know the exact nature of the virus we canâ€™t say for sure, Mr. Matson,â€ the doctor explained.
Mattâ€™s father slowly turned his head toward Matt. â€œMatt, have you everâ€”â€
â€œâ€”Dad, please,â€ Matt immediately responded, knowing what his father was about to ask. â€œPlease, not now,â€ he repeated, on the verge of breaking out into tears.
â€œSo actually,â€ the doctor interrupted, â€œWe are also going to ask that we get blood samples from you, as well,â€ he said, looking towards Mattâ€™s parents. â€œWe arenâ€™t sure how this virus is spread, so we just want to take any precautions, as Iâ€™m sure you understand.â€
After answering some addition questions, such as â€œWhat do we do now?â€ and â€œHow long does Matt have to stay at the hospital,â€ the doctor left the room, giving Matt and his parents some time to talk, which they used to stare blankly at each other instead. Eventually, after some crying and â€œI love youâ€s, Mattâ€™s parents left. Understanding the delicacy of the situation, Sam didnâ€™t make any comments and let Matt spend the remainder of the evening in his solitary thoughts.
The next afternoon Sam was discharged from the hospital. Him and Matt exchanged phone numbers and planned to hangout sometime, though neither of them really expected that they would. Two days later the scientists at the University of Washington determined that the virus wasnâ€™t dangerous, or easily contagious (their hypothesis at the time was that only direct blood contact would spread it), and that it was highly unlikely that the virus caused Mattâ€™s fainting the other day â€“ that it really was just a severe case of food poisoning â€“ and that there was no problem with letting Matt return to home and school.
â€œAre you absolutely sure?â€ Mattâ€™s doctor asked the University scientists numerous times. â€œI mean, I donâ€™t want this to turn into some epidemic or something because of us.â€
â€œYes, we are sure. Weâ€™ve replicated a synthetic version of the virus and found that it really doesnâ€™t survive at all outside of the body â€“ itâ€™s even weaker than HIV in that sense.â€
â€œAnd youâ€™re sure that the other night â€“ what happened to him wasnâ€™t because of this virus?â€
â€œWeâ€™re fairly confident, yes. The virus appears to have no effect on the rats which we injected the virus into. Plus, parts of the cell which this virus seems to latch on to have absolutely no correlation between the brain or blood flow, so I canâ€™t see how they are related.â€
The doctor ultimately held Matt and extra day, just to be sure, but when nothing happened and since Mattâ€™s vitals remained consistently healthy during his stay, he didnâ€™t see any reason to keep Matt in the hospital. Neither Mattâ€™s parents or his sister or the doctor tested positive for the presence of the antibodies or proteins of the virus that the scientists had isolated in Mattâ€™s blood. Everything appeared to be in order and there was no apparent danger.
Just as Matt was walking out the door, the doctor, who was helping him get out of bed, reached his arm out and grabbed Mattâ€™s shoulder roughly. â€œMatt,â€ he squeezed the shoulder a little harder, causing a dull pain. â€œI just wanted to let you know that weâ€™re not going to surrender to this virus, whatever it is.â€
â€œThanks, doctorâ€¦ I mean, do you think itâ€™s going to be serious?â€
â€œI honestly donâ€™t know Matt, but if it turns out to be a brutal killer, I promise that my army of doctors and scientists will be battling alongside me to get this thing defeated.â€
â€œI mean, I want this to be clear, Matt, an unknown, invasive virus has colonized in your cells â€“ we donâ€™t win until itâ€™s destroyed.â€
â€œWell, yes, sir, thanks for your commitment.â€ Matt wasnâ€™t entirely sure how to respond to the doctorâ€™s strange remarks. Was he trying to scare Matt? Was he trying to sound heroic? Or he was just excited about the possibility of becoming famous for discovering a new virus? Either way, Matt was glad to be done with him and the hospital.
Six weeks after the initial screening, Andrea Not received a phone call from the director of the program.
â€œHello, is Mrs. Not available?â€
â€œYes, this is Miss Not. Can I help you?â€
â€œOh, sorry. Miss Not, this is Robin Samsick from the Zendra Research Group in Seattle.â€
â€œOh, yes, Iâ€™ve been waiting for you to call this week.â€
â€œYes, well, good. We have good news about Sam.â€
â€œYes. Based on his test scores and in-person evaluations, weâ€™ve determined that he would make an excellent subject in our program.â€
â€œOh, well, yes, that is good news, isnâ€™t it?â€
â€œWe certainly think so, Miss. Not.â€ The manâ€™s voice reminded her of a radio announcer. Not like the radio announcers today, who have mostly generic, boring voices, but the radio announcers from when she was a kid â€“ the ones that spoke with a slight twang to their voice like Elvis. Or the ones that sounded like game show announcers â€“ that is what this Robin Samsickâ€™s voice sounded like.
â€œSo what is the next step, Mr. Samsick.â€
â€œPlease, call me Robin.â€
â€œOh, okay. Of course. So what do we do now, Robin?â€
â€œIâ€™m assuming that Sam is not enrolled in pre-elementary education, correct?â€
â€œNo, heâ€™s not.â€ She felt a little guilty about this, too. She had always intended for Samâ€™s life to be full of great things â€“ the best toys, the best education, the best parents. But she couldnâ€™t even find a preschool that would accept him, though she didnâ€™t necessary press the issue or follow-up as much as she probably should have. Nonetheless, Sam wasnâ€™t in school, which, from the perspective of this program could turn out to be a good thing, anyway.
â€œWell good. In that case, do you think he could be ready in a week or so?â€
â€œYou mean ready to stay at your facility?â€ she hesitated as she asked the question. It was the first time the realization actually hit her that they would be separated for quite some time.
â€œYes, as Iâ€™m sure one of our research assistants explained, the program, weâ€™ve determined, is only beneficial to Sam and our research team if we can have twenty-four/seven access to him. So we will need him to stay in the residential area of our facilities.â€
â€œYes, I understand.â€
Mr. Samsick went on to give Andrea all of the necessary details: what she should pack for Sam, when they should arrive at the facility, how often she could visit, etc. â€œAnd how long do you think it will be until he can move back home?â€
â€œWeâ€™re not entirely sure of that, Miss Not. It all depends on the progress of our experiment.â€
Although Matt missed a week of school, his teachers were all very understanding and gave him extensions and whatnot so he could get caught-up.
Despite the fact that him and Sam had planned to keep in touch, every time Matt thought about Sam, he had to think about the whole hospital experience, which only made him feel dirty and diseased. He couldnâ€™t stop visualizing the doctorâ€™s description of the virus colonizing his body â€“ little bits of virus floating around in each and every cell in his body, the way viruses do. It made him cringe.
The remainder of the year finished just as it would for any high school senior â€“ full of mostly ups and a few downs, continued attempts to separate oneself from oneâ€™s parents and family in order to assert independence, and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of oneâ€™s life. Ultimately, Matt decided to spend his first year after high school continuing to work full-time at the Urban Outfitters in downtown Seattle, where he had gotten a job that spring. His plan, at the time, was to work there for a year and save up money, then apply to the University of Washington and study either history or communications or both.
â€œMatt, I donâ€™t understand why you feel you have to take a year off to save money â€“ your father and I already explained that we have no problem helping you pay for college,â€ his mother explained to him, in similar words, numerous times.
â€œYeah, I know. But I feel this is something I need to do for myself, or whatever,â€ he tried to tell her. For some reason he felt the need to hide the true reason he wanted to take a year off: for some reason, whether it was because he was finally nearing adulthood or what, things in his life were becoming more clear, and he thought that taking a year to give that clarity time to focus would help him direct his life.
Every time they had the discussion his mother would reluctantly agree with his position, but then once a few weeks had passed, she would bring it up again. Even after all the application deadlines had passed, she still pressed. Finally, in May, a few weeks before graduation, she gave it a rest and promised to stop asking him about it.