[Image Credit: “Sueño” by Patricia Gonzalez]
He kind of liked the fuzz. It felt like a blooming in his head. The slow, dull growth of life liberating itself from soil. Except the fuzz was not flora but cotton. A fluff that shifted with the slightest tilt of his head. When he nodded “yes” or shook his head “no” the fuzz formed itself into different clouds. Some times he tried to make out their shapes, and hypothesized on the conditions of their making. In this way, the fuzz nurtured him. It gave meaning to a particularly violent sneeze, the rough and tumble of drying his wet hair. Bed rest became exciting.
The headaches too had their purpose. They offered him a schedule, as well as relief from his sister’s fussing. He knew Alexandria chattered incessantly to scare away her fear. Fifteen years his junior, she had been too young to remember the fading of their mother, or the abrupt loss of their father. When he closed his eyes and took his nap, sleep blocked out the constant clenching of her face, her wincing every time he got up to use the bathroom or struggled to spoon soup into his mouth. Her black hair trembled under the tension. The beginnings of crows’ feet touched the sides of her eyes, reminding him that she had been so very young before this whole ordeal.
She wandered through the rooms of their family home, the floorboards mocking her solemnness with cartoonish creaks. Sometimes he found her crouched in front of photographs of their ancestors, whispering harshly to them for advice. That’s no way to ask for what you want, he smiled, and picked at the wrinkles on his cheeks. She growled at him to get back into bed through her tears—she didn’t want to be reminded that if he was gone she would be the only left in that house. He put a hand on her back as a kind of apology, and instantly her body shook like a tree in wind. When she wasn’t crying, her face seemed permanently frozen with shock. He tried his best not to laugh at this, burying his smile behind a cup of tea, and remembered that sorrow was her right. He and his other siblings had always been the buffer between her and sadness, but now was her moment to feel it all. He couldn’t protect her from what might happen next.
Outside the sky was a pleasant, creamy grey. The tops of pine trees poked at its pregnant belly, daring it to release. It was the seasonless season in Portland, the time of year when it just rained and rained from Winter through Spring. The perfect time of year for the fuzz to appear, really. He had the time to meditate on all the objects of their home. The white porcelain stove that had scalded his arm as a boy, the blue tea set that their grandmother had loved. The proud clawfoot tub he could barely get in and out of anymore.
His younger brother Percy came often, to say nothing. He sensed that Percy did not approve of the limbo of his condition. Uncertainty did not run in the family. Percy stood by his bed, hands crossed at his waist, waiting for him to come to a decision, like their father would have done. Their father had gone out like a light.
They say it’s working, he said to the unmoving air, but Percy did not budge. Percy continued to stare down at him. He twisted his hands under the sheets, then tried to lift his body a little, but crumpled. He thought he saw Percy shield his eyes from his helpless state. The hotei in the corner seemed to lift its hands in mockery.
Some times he and Percy would work on the family album together, him dutifully turning the pages while Percy glued down the appropriate photos in place. Their sister Guinevere had labeled all the photos when she came to visit. After the clan learned about his condition, all six siblings shared the house they grew up in for a month. They slept sardine-like in the beds, same as they did as children, the boys occupying one room and the girls the other. There had been much dusting, much ripping through chests of old memories, much rearranging of furniture and fighting over items inherited. For weeks after, he and Alexandria swore they could still hear the buzzing of voices. But only his own snaked its way through the silence now, echoing off the wood paneling as he directed Percy to put such and such photo here, another there. Slowly they knit the lineage together again.
At first he believed his headaches were caffeine withdrawals, so he increased his intake to three cups a day. In the mailroom he sorted like an octopus, hands moving so fast he thought he was seeing double. Then one day the fuzz turned into big fat claws that pawed and pawed at the inside of his brain. He felt his back against the cool stone of the mailroom floor. The last thing he remembered was a flurry of letters swimming around in the air, like the tiny bits of paper in a snow globe.
He woke up in a hospital bed to Alexandria clapping her hands on her cheeks. She was clapping and clapping as if trying to wake herself up. He tried to rise to tell her not to worry, but a pounding headache made its presence known every time he tried to get up. He heard the high pitch of her speech but couldn’t understand what she was saying. A doctor came in grinning. He looked down at the doctor’s hand squeezing his arm. He rather liked the warm rush of blood the pressure made. He stopped himself from asking the doctor to do it again. The doctor cocked his head, are you listening? The doctor’s voice formed a melody over Alexandria’s cheek clapping. Their music made it hard for him to focus.
He tried to listen, but all he could think about was how everything in the room was made of plastic. The beds were plastic, the hospital gowns, the gloves the nurse put on to carefully probe his throat, to feel the bulbs of his lymph nodes. Even the doctor looked plastic, with his Lego hair, stick straight arms, the white white teeth that shone and shone, even when he told him that it would be a slow recovery and that he must be put through a machine that zaps out illness and that it would feel like everything was being pulled out of his body, but that was all part of the process. And he nodded and nodded, not so much out of understanding but to shake the fuzz, to ask why it wasn’t on his side, that he had thought it was his friend, and then, to see what kind of shape it would make—what form it felt was appropriate for this particular situation.
When they got home Alexandria was still wailing. She wrung her hands in a way he thought only existed in books. To match her energy he twisted his face and pulled at his hair with his fists. This seemed to satisfy her. She put her head to his and stayed very quiet. Then she got up to make him some green tea.
He traced the patterns of linoleum flowers on the kitchen table, cupped the warmth of his mug as if it were a life force, and nodded without listening as his sister dictated which pills he must take.
He thought the fuzz was awakening but quickly realized the noise was Alexandria rustling about in the dark. Her body squirmed under a mass of blankets on the La-Z-Boy she had wheeled into his bedroom. He kicked the engine of his body awake by planting one foot on the sickeningly soft carpet, then the other. He dug his toes into what felt like slime under his feet. Step by step he waded to the bathroom in the dark, managing not to wake her.
He hit the switch and light flooded in to reveal a figure. He stared back at the alien in the mirror. The pink, blue, and yellow pills seemed to have mixed inside him, turning his skin green. He couldn’t understand why the doctor had not told him that all of the pills would make him something foreign. That together, they flushed out of his system not just disease but marrow, left him looking and feeling like anything but human. He touched the white bulbs of his eyes, curious as to how they managed to stay in their sockets. A faulty electric circuit of veins ran just below his skin. Welcome, he said to his new form.
He remembered the summer his father had taught him and Percy how to box. You two are the eldest, his father had said, you must protect your sisters. He drove them out to a remote spot on Sauvie Island. Pelicans bent their necks inquisitively at them. Percy and their father ignored these observers, but he, always lacking the self-restraint that Percy and their father possessed, pressed his nose against the car’s windowpane, trying to match the birds’ curiosity. When they got out of the car he trailed behind, dutifully covering up the tracks the three of them made in the sand. After selecting a strip of beach, the boys bounced back and forth on the shore while their father taught them the hook, jab, and uppercut. The brothers glided along in unison, delivering the blows to the air. When it came time, the two of them faced each other. He grinned nervously while Percy’s face didn’t give a centimeter. Their father yelled Go! but before he had a chance to step back Percy had punched him straight in his naked gut. In that moment, he watched the outline of Percy’s fist shift from red to yellow to purple on his stomach.
Pink beings leant over him, haloed by the searing light behind. For a moment he thought he was at the dentist. Then he spied one of his moss-colored hands poking out from the hospital gown and he remembered he was changing. The fuzz was taking over. It was spreading. The headaches visited him more regularly. Tiny needlepoints pulled apart the folds of his brain, making separate strands of brain yarn, then re-knitting them together. Is this supposed to be happening? he asked one of the pink beings, but she just said Ssssh! like he was a cranky child. He cleared his throat, I am not a child. I am just changing.
There, there, she said, and he knew it was no use. They didn’t understand the fuzz’s purpose, what it allowed him to be.
That night, as he fell asleep under sheets of tissue paper he dreamt of his father. He saw the dingy gyms of his childhood, the silhouette of his father in that grimy light, prancing back and forth in the ring, advancing, retreating, re-inventing. His hands like bricks, skin tightening over his stomach as he wielded his torso back and forth, hands bound with gauze, ready to take on any man. One minute he was a deer, then a bear, then a cheetah. His father spent his life shape shifting across the mat, a man able to re-configure himself fight after fight, like oil in water. He leaned back on the hospital pillows and smiled. The fuzz gifted him this power too.
He started treating the fuzz like a Magic 8 Ball, letting the shapes predict his future for the day. What do you say, fuzz, he asked with a whip of his head, one more day of turning green? The fuzz cluttered to the left side of his head, which he took to mean, you may rely on it. He ripped the sheets from his upper body and cheerfully examined the blue leeches of his veins burrowing into his asparagus-colored skin. He was just admiring the particular pistachio of his palms when Alexandria came in with a bowl full of oatmeal. He laughed and said it looked like brains. Get it, BRAINS? he grinned and poked at her ribs. This made her angry, and he couldn’t understand why. She shoved the bowl on his dining tray with such force that oatmeal splattered up onto his face. She left and slammed the door behind her. Out his window the sun tried to smear itself across the sky but was blocked by a frown of clouds. This battle cast shadows across his room. He picked at the grains sliding down his sunken cheeks. He fell asleep with oatmeal still forming a mask.
When he woke up, Percy’s angular face loomed over his, the cut of his cheekbones a constant reminder that Percy looked more like their father than he did. Percy wound his arms around his broad chest. The doctors entered and whipped on the fluorescent light, which illuminated the dents and smooth spots of Percy’s face, like the texture of the moon. He ignored the fuzz’s chatter and slowly pulled his body up like a drawbridge. When he winced Percy did not move to help him, but stayed in a terracotta warrior position. He liked that about Percy, who, like their father, believed a man should be afforded the decency of bearing his own fate. The fuzz seemed to sigh in awe.
Ignoring Percy in the corner, the doctors lined up by his bed to tell him that maybe he would be okay. He shot Percy a look. He thought he saw Percy wince at the singsong of the doctors’ hopefulness. He looked back at the doctors moving their mouths, and frowned. Both he and Percy knew that their lineage did not tolerate possibility. His clans were makers of their own destiny. That’s why, after the doctors had retreated back into the white walls of the hall, he asked Percy to bring it. Percy nodded. He only had to ask once.
Percy moved towards the door but he grabbed Percy’s wrist. Don’t forget, but as he said it he knew he was being ridiculous—Percy was a man of his word. Percy nodded again, and strode out.
He asked the ancestors to watch over Alexandria. Once Percy brought it to him, she would have sole responsibility of the house. She realized that Alexandria had always served him his tea at the perfect temperature. When news of the fuzz’s inhabitance broke she was the sole one of their siblings to be angry. Her grief, too, was stronger than the others. He couldn’t quite understand why his demise might wound her more greatly than the usual familial grief, but he then realized that she was much less accustomed to loss. Sponge-bathing him in the mornings was the closest she had ever gotten to a rotting corpse. For the first time in his awareness of being a host he shed a tear, for being implicated in the ravaging of her innocence. He regretted being too old to be have been her playmate, for he thought they would have made a very good team.
The next day, Percy brought it—black and glossy like a beetle. It hit the light streaming in from the hospital window. Percy squeezed his hand over it, a spasm of affection in his face. He raised his chin and nodded at his younger brother. Soundlessly, Percy rose, and walked to the door. The rubber frame made a thud after him.
He was now left alone to consider the sweet relief of vacancy. The metal was cool against his face. He thought of his father. The Colt’s mouth nuzzled his cheek, then pushed through his delicate facial bones, excavating the fuzz, separating it to form a holy hole. He knew it probably wasn’t possible, but he thought he heard the shot echo in the hospital halls, cotton flying everywhere.