Elise and I use to dance in our empty dining room before Colin was born. She was always such a great dancer. Her legs would dip and twist like flapping bed sheets on a clothesline. The dining room’s glistening hardwood floor illuminated her every move. She looked lighter than hair. I would put on old Patsy Cline records and we would dance until one of us let out a yawn. Those were the days when we still had tomorrows.
* * *
Brody T. Vicknair,
“The Body Dies But the Brains Lives,”
January 20, 2006.
Paul Herman responded to a battery of questions by the media this Tuesday, not unusual except that Mr. Herman, the syndicated radio host of “Heartland USA,” died three years previously from The Disorder. After tests had been performed to find a cure or cause, scientists noticed strange brain activity in Paul Herman. Through this, it was discovered that one side effect of The Disorder is a seeming immortality inside the brain. This Tuesday, when asked to describe the situation by an inflicted reporter, Herman’s device simply read “lonesome.” But Paul Herman is anything but alone. After the first reported case in 1983, over three million cases of The Disorder have swept over the United States and parts of Canada. When asked for a final word, Paul Herman said only, “See you next Wednesday.”
* * *
I had always felt uncomfortable in my skin, but when it began to fall off I grew concerned. It slipped off when I touched it; small strips dangled from the gossamer web of flesh and body fat it covered. Soon the decay spread.
My right ear hung down, scraping against the side of my neck. After a week, it snapped off as I was brushing my hair and fell with a muted smack against the bathroom sink. The next morning, I woke to find the left one stuck to my forehead.
Then my nose began to brown. It started when I scrunched it after smelling meat rotting in the back of the refrigerator. After that wince, my nose stayed bunched until it flaked off in a tissue.
Tonight, my brother Phineas calls me. From the hallway, I hear the telephone ringing in the kitchen. I try not to rush, knowing my toes are weak and could shake from me.
“Hey. Calling to wish you a happy birthday.” He paused. “Has it started?”
“What else? I mean, Rose has already lost the skin under her feet and back. How far along is Elise?” I stare at my wife, a brain on a pillow by the sill.
“It’s the final stage.”
“Aren’t you,” Phin clears his throat, “scared?”
“You know what I’m afraid of,” I say, “That there’s a heaven. Some tranquil, beautiful place where everyone is happy and life is perfect. But you got to die to get there. But like they say, we never…” There’s a low loud groan on the other end of the line. It’s Rose.
With a quick click, Phin hangs up his phone. I follow.
When we were kids, I followed him too. One winter night, we walked down the street to Ms. Glimmer’s house to find our lost cat. But it wasn’t there. So we turned and turned until I didn’t know where we were anymore. Phin didn’t either. We started seeing people we didn’t recognize, houses we had never seen before. We found the cat hiding under a Buick in some old man’s overgrown yard. Later, we found out that the man was one of the first in our neighborhood to start decaying.
On the kitchen counter, a cupcake cools with an unlit candle jabbed past the pale blue icing and into the cake’s center. I light the candle and the white wick blackens, the flame dances until I press my lips and blow. Hot wax shudders and drips on the frosting.
* * *
From the doorframe of my bedroom, Colin’s whisper wakes me.
“My rainbow night-light burned out can you fix it can you please read me a story.”
“Close your eyes and wait.” As his shadow on my bedroom wall falls away, I begin getting up. I roll my shoulder off the bed, my neck and head fighting their weight to rise. My lungs rumple like a plastic grocery bag when I breathe. With all the strength in my arms, I push up and out of my bed.
With small, calculated steps, I walk to his room where his sheet, pressed against his tiny body, rises and falls with each breath.
Colin’s eyes are closed as my falling shadow lets him know I’m here.
“It’s bad.” He knows.
“Yeah. Try not to look.”
“What do you want me to read you?” Without turning over, he hands me a thin white book.
I open it, flakes of my skin falling in the folds of the pages as I turn to the beginning:
Once upon a time there was a breeze that didn’t have a home. It floated from meadow to meadow, but every time the homeless breeze found other breezes playing in the grass. The breeze was very sad and sulked to a nearby town knocking hats off people’s heads, to make itself feel better. One day, while sauntering to another town, the breeze came upon a small cottage. Inside, a retired logger was dying. His breaths were short and his chest puffed like a bullfrog. Slowly, his large gasps grew shorter and shorter until he panted like a thirsty dog. The breeze rushed through the cottage door and flew into the old logger’s chest. He jumped up high into the air with life and fell down to his bed where he slept for months. When he woke up, the logger’s old body was replaced with a young strong body with huge muscles. The man and the breeze lived together forever.
* * *
In the kitchen this morning, I am thinking about Elise. Months before she entered the final stage, she worked in her daisy garden, knees and palms covered in loose soil. On our last night together, I had to help her ease into bed, as she was nearing the final stage and had very little strength left in her. Elise’s skin tore like bleached cloth as I ran my fingers up her peeling thighs; ribbons of skin fell as I stroked her. She smelled like one of her withering daisies as she leaned up to kiss me. Layers of skin remained from her lips as she pulled away.
I whispered, “Oh Elise,” where her ears once were.
“Honey, I love you with all the pieces of my heart,” as her bones snapped like celery. She disintegrated.
I look at Elise. What’s left of her rests atop a pillow on the wide windowsill where she used to sit, knees pressed against her chest, and drink hot coffee, or tea. She usually wore her long white floral-print dress with its sleek trim along the neckline. The straps were thin and looked stretched as if they could have popped at any second. When she smiled, her lips drew out to where her eyes end into temples. From there, she decided what daisies were in bloom. Which flowers were going to die. Outside the window, the branches of our oak tree swing, leaves shake from it. The leaves fall on too-high grass and settle.
* * *
I wake, startled, and look for Elise. I remember she is at the kitchen window. I lift my shoulder and with diminishing strength, lift my neck and head. A thunderclap explodes, a thin sheet of lightning and I fall back. It rains hard. My bones are solid as eggshells.
As I come closer to the kitchen, the sound of falling rain swells. The window is open.
Elise is not on her pillow.
I run outside to her, to the rain. The drops are heavy and hit my skin hard enough to puncture deep past layers of skin and rotting muscle. There, in the mud, Elise lies, dirty and specked with grains of sand. Rivulets of rain roll off her brownish-pink lobe. I rush to her, parcels falling from me. I collapse to my knees and my legs break away. I press my disintegrating chest against Elise and she slips inside, past the crackling ribs and torn muscle.
At the final stage, I feel the chambers of my heart separate in the rain.
I stare up at the dark blue sky as cool rain falls on the fertile grass. The leaves on the oak collect water in pools, grow heavy and spill to the earth. The breeze slides against my eyelids like a kiss. I wrench my head back and scream for help, but the force snaps my spine and splits my throat in half. Always uncomfortable in my skin. The night is dark, the moon’s shine is muted, and the rain reflects it like diamonds.
* * *
My room is dark but it gets brighter and dark again because of the storm. I wish my night-light worked. I hear a noise and I go into the hall. Nothing. I look in Daddy’s room. Nothing. I walk to the kitchen, my loose tooth moving whenever I touch it with my tongue. It is going to fall out and the tooth fairy is going to bring me money. The wind is everywhere and it blows loose papers all over the house. I close an open window. I see something on the grass. The doorknob is high so I reach up and turn it until the door opens. I take off my sock because I do not want to get them wet and I push the screen door away. The thing on the grass is dark like mud. I don’t know what it is, but I touch it with my whole hand and push. I wipe my hand on my pant leg. I go back inside to get away from the rain and sit on the couch in the old dining room. I’m not allowed to play with the record player because it is old. I feel the tooth fall on my tongue as I lift and lower the arm of the record player. Who’s Patsy Cline? I push a red button and listen.
I fall to pieces
Each time I see you again….