I said I was going to practice my writing skills by posting some short stories and today I make good on my word. This is a story I wrote a few days ago by using this website’s wonderful prompts. If you are in need of some inspiration to get the creative words flowing, I recommend that website as a source of wacky, weird, wild writing prompts. Check it out!
I’m not going to ramble much in order to introduce this story, but I wanted to preface it with a few things: first, it is one of the saddest things I have ever written. It’s not a pick-me-up, feel-good story. Second, Cocoa is a black girl. I didn’t mention it specifically in the story because it didn’t matter, but she is, and I hope as a character she sends a positive message regardless of your race. Third, this is about the length of story you can expect from me. In a word processing program, it comes out to about three and a third pages. I’ll try to keep them short and (bitter)sweet. Fourth, I have not written a story in a very long time. Picking this style of writing back up is a learning process for me. And finally, I have added a new page to the navigation bar at the top of my blog. If you’d like to browse my short stories without sifting through all my blog posts, click on the link that says “Short Stories”. I’ll be linking them there in order as I post them. Enjoy!
No one expects their life to conspire against them, but life has a way of doing just that. One minute you’re living some semblance of the American dream and the next…well, the next you’re sitting in a hospital room trying to wrap your mind around three words that should never be strung together in a sentence: inoperable brain tumor.
It felt like a dream, if Stephen King was directing it. A very surreal dream. Maybe King was collaborating with Salvador Dali. I began a regimen of treatments but nothing worked. I knew they wouldn’t work. My life became one long, slow revolving door of hospital stays, awful treatments, and grim hopelessness.
I had no one to share this misery with and I suppose that was for the best. No family, no close friends. As the weeks dragged into months and on into a year my condition began to deteriorate. I watched my reflection in the mirror wither and die. I was thirty-eight but I looked twice that. I became too weak to leave the hospital after each treatment so I was afforded a bed in a room on the third floor, and it was in this room that the last few weeks of my life took place. It was in this room that I met her.
Her name was Cocoa. Somehow I doubt that was her real name. But it suited her and I never pressed the matter. Maybe I didn’t really want to know her that well. She had a bed across from mine and in a ward suitable for four, we two were alone. Empty beds on either side of us reminded me that life was finite and hospitals only delayed the inevitable.
Cocoa was an exotic dancer. She told me this the moment we met. It was an odd way to start a conversation but it broke the ice like a wrecking ball and from then on out I knew she was the type of girl who said everything that came to mind. No filters, no shame. In other words, my exact opposite. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old but she had been diagnosed with some sort of lymphoma a year ago. Life, it seemed, spared neither the young nor the beautiful.
She was the sort of girl who smiled at life even when it scowled back at her. She was weak and she was fading, but she was still smiling. She talked about “tomorrow” as if there would be one, about “next year” as if it were a given. For her I hoped it was.
Through all of the treatments and all of the chemo and all of the needles and drugs and wires and tubes, we forged a sort of strange friendship. She talked a lot despite her exhaustion and her illness and that was alright because I rarely needed to speak at all. She had the rare ability to carry both sides of a conversation all on her own.
Two weeks after I had been admitted, she was sitting upright in her bed reading a magazine and I was staring out the window. This passed for fun in a hospital room for dying people. Cocoa looked over. “You awake? You didn’t die on me did you?”
“Not yet.” My voice sounded hoarse and soft. It wasn’t my voice anymore.
“Something interesting beyond that window?” She put down her magazine and leaned forward out of bed so she could see it too.
“What’s the matter with you?” I heard her shuffle aside her magazines and shift in bed but I didn’t look over to see what she was doing until I heard the creak of the bed frame and the sound of bare feet on the tile floor.
“Cocoa, Jesus Christ, get back in bed. What are you doing?” I was afraid she would fall. She was so weak that she had to hold on to her I.V. stand to walk. She shuffled over to my bed and sat down, breathless from the journey of about ten feet. I sat up.
“Don’t fuss over me,” she scolded. “That’s what my mother does. Now why you over here staring out the window like some sorta dead man?” She gave me attitude and I could see in her the ornery young lady who had once danced for a living.
“I don’t feel well,” I replied, but it was a cop-out. No one in a hospital “feels well”. She gave me a dour look and if she wasn’t holding on to her I.V. stand I could just imagine her hands on her hips. Cancer had taken a lot from her but it had yet to take her sass.
“Yeah, you look like crap. What else is new?”
“Thanks, Cocoa.” I closed my eyes and ran my hands over my face. It wasn’t the face I remembered. It was thin and sunken and my skin was like tissue paper. I pressed my fingertips into my eyes until bright colors popped in the darkness behind my lids. I muttered, “I don’t feel human anymore.”
There was silence on the other side of my hands. I expected a witty rebuttal but instead I felt her slight weight lift from the edge of my bed and heard the squeaking of her I.V. wheels as she crossed the room again. I let my hands fall into my lap and watched her as she grabbed her patient chart and pulled something off of it, and then shuffled back to my bedside and sat. She held something up in her hand for me to see. “Know what this is?”
“It’s a paperclip,” I replied, confused.
“Yeah. A paperclip.” She began to unfold it, bending it all out of shape until it looked more like a lightning bolt than a paper clip. “Now what is it?”
“It’s…a bolt of lightning?”
“No, moron. It’s still a damn paperclip.” She looked at me like I had lost my mind and I wondered if the meds were getting to her. Then she explained. “Just because I bent it all apart doesn’t change what it is. It’s all funny lookin’ right now because I did something to it I wasn’t supposed to. And yeah, fine, it doesn’t function like a paperclip anymore, but that’s alright. It’s still a paperclip. And you can always bend it back.”
I stared at her. In her own strange way she made a lot of sense, and I didn’t know what to say. I had spent months being contorted into this wraith I had become. So many long months of torture trying to shrink the tumor in my brain before it pressed on something vital and killed me. I had spent weeks lying in a hospital bed alone feeling nauseas and sore and exhausted and dizzy and hopeless. I was a bent up old paperclip. And maybe someday, someone would come along and bend me back.
“Thanks, Cocoa,” I whispered, and this time it was genuine.
“You’re still human,” she replied. I watched as she bent the paperclip again in her hands, and it wasn’t until she was done that I saw what form it took now. She handed it to me in the shape of a heart, pressed it into my palm and smiled. “Maybe you won’t be in the same shape when they’re done with you here, but you’re still human.” She got up off my bed and straightened her pajamas. “Now you can go back to staring out the window.”
She went back to her bed and I laid back down in mine, turning over the little paperclip heart in my hands. Maybe she was right. I hoped she was right. For both of us.
The next morning the paperclip heart had left an indentation in my palm where I had slept all night holding it. I sat up and looked across the room to Cocoa’s bed but the curtains were drawn and I didn’t want to wake her. I sat there staring out the window, eating breakfast, playing with my paperclip. It was after noon when I got up to use the restroom. As I passed by Cocoa’s bed, I looked through the gap in the curtains and it was empty. Apparently she had another treatment today. I hoped it went well.
Hours passed and Cocoa didn’t return. I grew restless. Finally, at dinner time, I accosted the orderly who brought me my tray. “Where’s Cocoa?” I demanded.
“You want a cup of hot chocolate?”
“No! For the love of – where is Cocoa?”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I don’t know.” And the boy left, leaving me sitting angrily in bed with a bowl of soup steaming in the tray in front of me. I took one bit of chicken and rice soup and decided to rebel. I pushed the tray away and hauled myself out of bed, using the I.V. stand for support. I shuffled my way across the room and out into the hallway, rolling doggedly towards the nurse’s station at the end. “Excuse me,” I began, but a large nurse in luridly yellow scrubs interrupted.
“Mr. Thompson, what on earth are you doing? You shouldn’t be up wandering the halls!” She came out from behind the station to usher me back to my room but I planted my feet and held on to the I.V. stand firmly.
“I want to know where Cocoa went.”
“Who?” She looked perplexed.
“Cocoa!” I repeated, feeling a lot like I was speaking a foreign language. “The young lady who shared that room with me. Where is she?”
“Oh. Marsha Sanders, you mean?”
“I never asked her real name…” I felt myself blush. Of course Cocoa wasn’t her legal name.
“ Oh, honey…” By the way her tone changed, I felt my heart sink down into the region of my navel. Suddenly my grip on the I.V. stand was slicked with sweat. “No one told you?”
“Told me…told me what…?” The world began to spin. She didn’t need to finish her sentence. I wish she hadn’t.
“Honey, Marsha did this morning, just after her treatment. I’m so sorry.”
I sat down on a chair in the hallway, clutching the I.V. stand as if it were my only anchor in a rapidly dissolving world. The nurse was speaking to me but I didn’t comprehend what she said. I just nodded along with the rhythm of her words. I felt the world slip away and slid a hand into my pajama pocket and clutched the thin paperclip heart she had given me.
A month later I found myself standing in the autumn serenity of a silent graveyard. The trees were turning orange and yellow and the grass was strewn with leaves. I was standing without the aid of an I.V. stand, without the pain of a needle in my hand, without the exhaustion that comes with being deathly ill.
I looked down at a glossy granite headstone marked “Marsha Sands” and felt the prickle of a cold breeze on my neck. In my left pocket I felt the familiar curve of the paperclip heart and squeezed it gently in my palm. Two weeks ago, the doctors discovered that my tumor was shrinking. Two weeks ago, I started to feel human again. Two hours ago, I walked out of the hospital instead of leaving in a body bag.
I bent down and set the little paperclip heart up against the cold stone just beneath her name. I didn’t need it anymore. I never got to say thank you, but I hope she understood. She had been right. I had been bent out of shape and unrecognizable, but I was still human, and she had bent me back.