Short story: Rack, by Emma Neale
“I ushered Jack along to the medical center, and waited to hear whether antibiotic cream, frequent ice packs, or even a quick day-surgery procedure was the best course of action": a parent’s nightmare, by Dunedin writer Emma Neale.
When we first saw the tiny swelling on our son’s forehead, we thought it was where his stitches hadn’t fully dissolved. A couple of months earlier, he had split his head open by charging into a doorframe during a play-fight with wooden swords. The staff at Accident and Emergency tended to him efficiently, but many weeks later, when he pushed back his fringe, I noticed a lump near the scar’s small scarlet cross. I ran a finger over it.
“Jack, does it hurt?”
The knot had the bluish tinge of a bruise, as if he’d taken another recent knock to the head. It was hard to believe that pain didn’t nest there.
Over several days I ran my thumb across the blemish to check it, as if Jack were a magic lamp and my wishes unlimited. This part of him should have worn down, smooth and gleaming, like the snout or ear tips on bronze animal statues in public gardens or piazzas, statues with those patches that shine with adoration from the polish of visitors’ pilgrim hands.
I wondered, at my worst, whether my small repeated act of concern had unintended effects. The bud flourished. The bluish taint gently fanned into green, lavender, yellow. When Jack tilted his head to listen, or when in deep thought, the bump seemed more prominent. Allen kept telling me to stop worrying at it; our child’s body would sort itself out; the stitches would eventually vanish. ‘Don’t hover over him for every little thing. You can’t lock him up in a tower. Give the kid some space.’
As the swelling protruded more over the weeks, it also narrowed. Soon I could rest finger and thumb on either side, as if gripping a pencil stub. The first time I noticed this, I remembered the dizzy terror from months earlier, when, one morning in the shower, hormonal breast tenderness made me half-absently try to express milk. New mothers are often told to massage away any tiny lumps they feel to prevent the onset of mastitis, with its fevers and infection. A latent, half-conscious pain-memory must have instructed me, all these years later, to repeat the salve. One nipple secreted a bizarre, tattoo-blue ink. I felt faint, disbelieving, sickened. There was a history of breast cancer in my family: perhaps this was an early sign. Oh God. Where else would such a color appear in nature? Poisonous berries? The underwater cloud that frightened sea creatures like squid release to confuse predators? I Googled, but couldn’t find any reference to the symptom. I knew I should see the GP, yet also worried she might decide it was some sort of psychosis. A journalist, expressing inky fluid from her breasts? It was delusional. I’d let work stress trickle into every tiny crevice of thought.
I had to fight against a potent inner turmoil of disbelief, fear and unexpected shame before I could make my appointment. Yet, when I did — the doctor had understood immediately, passed no moral judgment. Had I thought she’d be repelled by my self-examination? As in the old stories: women thought of as sluttish, dirty, duplicitous, even in the eyes of another woman? In fact, she said she’d come across something similar in a patient once before, and suspected it was benign: just a quirk of some healthy, if ageing, bodies. Still, she’d ask a specialist to follow up.
That specialist, too, after the examination, was frank, sensible, and glad to be sending a healthy case on her way again: ‘Everything’s absolutely fine. It’s possible there was a small duct blocked, but there’s nothing there now. What we really worry about is blood, or yellowish discharge.’ Printer, pen, or squid ink nothing to be frightened of, apparently. I hadn’t been hallucinating; I wasn’t morphing into a sea creature; I wasn’t ill.
That prickling hybrid of shame and dread, like a trapped dog scrabbling to get out, then panting, as it gathered energy … I couldn’t give it any quarter in the care of our child. Besides, it had been the right thing, to visit the doctor, and get reassurance that my symptoms, though disconcerting and uncomfortable, were normal. The body, in its ordinary-yet-miraculous way, had gone on to heal itself. Panic and embarrassment were the real enemies; in the end, they were the worst of the whole experience.
So I shook off the dismay I felt at the toughening nodule on Jack’s forehead, which he’d taken to covering with a large baseball cap. Deciding I was being practical, even overly cautious, I ushered him along to the medical center, and waited to hear whether antibiotic cream, frequent ice packs, or even a quick day-surgery procedure was the best course of action.
It was right there in the waiting room that Jack first told me he was finding it hard to separate his fingers. I was slightly distracted by the buzz of notifications from work on my phone, chatter at the receptionist’s desk, and an adorable Japanese toddler and her young, leather-jacketed dad sitting across from us. He was reading a battered old Maisy Mouse board book to her as she peeped through, then over, through, then over her father’s aviator shades. So I made light of Jack’s grumble, at first. ‘Should we get you checked for arthritis, too, Mr. Man?’ Jack tilted up his chin a little, so I could see the frown beneath his ridiculous cap (stitched with Dude-bro in superhero font). ‘Does arthritis make your skin paler and thicker, too?’ He held his wrists out, drooped on the air. A new, coarse white spray of hair showed under his shirt cuffs: nothing like the sparse thistledown of boyhood. I reached out to touch it and he blew a frustrated sigh, beat on the floor with both feet, jiggled the way he always had, wanting to be on the move, out of here, absorbing sun and space.
“I’m hungry,” he said. He’d eaten a huge snack just before we left home; I’d made sure of it, so that he wouldn’t beg me to buy something pricey in town. I dug around in my handbag, hoping an energy bar might be there from a day when I was more organised. “Sorry, Jumping Jack,” I said. “You’ll just have to wait.” He grunted then leaned his face into the large rubber plant that sat next to a display of magazines. He took a cautious nibble of a leaf. I was so startled that I laughed even as I gripped his knee in one of those parental squeezes that says you’re well out of line there, buddy! He flinched, made a bitter face; spat out the leaf.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I scolded.
“I don't think I’m doing it. I’m just doing it. I’m trying to find a bite to eat around here.”
Other patients watched us over their magazines or mobiles. One young man — head shaven apart from a dozen thin ginger braids sealed with beads — held up his phone. He wasn’t taking a photo, was he? I stared hard. He slouched back in his seat, knuckling at his nose as if desperate to pick it, but the pressure of my glare reminded him he was in public; there were boundaries.
When the GP called us in and showed us to her consultation room, I shivered my shoulders at her, like shedding a dust of snow. “It’s a little weird out there today,” I said. She sighed as she closed her door, waving for us to take a seat. “Fabulous,” she said. “That means it’ll get even weirder in here, right?” She said it as if I were a colleague, not another exasperating case. I smiled; we were lucky to have her. Sometimes, for brief moments in my appointments, I’d even forget why I’d gone in there; we’d be so busy squinting through tears of laughter.
“So, you’re here about Jack today, yes?” she said. “What can I do for you, my man?”
He waggled his eyebrows at her then nodded at the jar of jellybeans. “Got any food?” he said.
“Jack! I’ll get you something later. Don’t be rude, sweetheart.”
“Mothers,” he said. “They tell you off, then call you sweetie as if they’re talking nice.”
Doctor McIntyre sucked in her cheeks. “Quite,” she said, and scooped up the jellybean jar. “Hands,” she commanded. He held them out as if for an inspection. “Cupped,” she corrected. He made a palm-bowl. “Doctor recommends one jellybean per year of child’s age,” she said.
“I’m nearly eleven.”
She tapped out eleven rainbow beans from the jar. “To be taken immediately,” she said. Jack chewed, brown eyes glinting like sugar crystals.
While his mouth was full, Doctor McIntyre turned to me. “Ho-kay, and what else is up, besides ever-present nagging hunger?” I wondered if her dimples only showed when she had to restrain amusement.
I described the forehead lump and mentioned Jack’s complaint about his hands. “Mind if I take a look?” she asked him. He shrugged and took off his cap. Doctor McIntyre gently brushed his fringe clear, although the bump was already pushing through his tangle.
I’d convinced myself that she would say something blissfully mundane, like, “Ah. A mild reaction to some sutures still lingering there. We see it in certain sensitive children.” Or, “That’s quite a swelling. It’s nothing serious, though: it’s like the injuries you see from squash balls, or a heavy fall. A hematoma. It can take months to fade, but it’s perfectly benign...”
Instead, she fell to somber concentration. “Hold back that fringe for me, Jack,” she said. She found her penlight, shone it to and fro across his forehead, almost as if testing vision. She took his blood pressure then listened to his heart. She sat back, chin rested on one thumb, her fingers over her mouth. Anxiety kicked in my chest. Jack grew restless as she continued to study him from that distance. His fidgeting around finally broke her trance as she said, “I just want to touch it for a second, Jack. Let me know if it hurts.” She hunched forward in her swivel chair, tracing a finger along the extended nodule, then withdrawing contact quickly, as if at a bird’s sharp peck.
She spun back to her computer screen, then pulled forms out of a small, stacked tower of trays on her desk. “We’ll order blood tests. See if you can get them done today, so I can fast-track the results. I’ll ring you as soon as they come in.” She held my gaze. “Can I call your cellphone, or would you prefer the home number only?”
“Either’s fine,” I said, a stinging tightness behind my eyes.
She stood, one hand on Jack’s shoulder, the other gesturing to the door. With anyone else, the abruptness would have made me feel dismissed. With her, I knew it was a necessary urgency. “I suspect we’re going to need a biopsy and surgery,” she said. “I’m concerned it’s an abnormal tumor, but to be honest, I’ve not seen anything quite like it before. I’ll get some advice when the bloods come in.” She shifted her gaze to Jack. “For now, be careful not to knock your head into anything, hey? Probably best to avoid any sports at this stage.” Her tone with him was as if he’d twisted an ankle: just matter-of-fact, no drama, but her eye contact, shifting back to me already, said, I’m sorry, and action those tests, and keep your cellphone on.
Every bizarre detail after this feels, in retrospect, as if it was trying so hard to tell me what was coming, but I didn’t see it. Hope is a blinding opiate, isn’t it? I can’t bear to list all the ways his behavior altered as we tried to contain his improbable metamorphosis, stunt its pace, though I replay the way he stamped his feet as shudders went through him; the way he jerked at every blood test, up-ending metal trays of syringes, phials, cotton wool: that eddy of hysteria so unlike my stoic wee lad; the bewildered sadness in his eye afterwards; the huffing and almost angry, guttural sighing that punctuated everything we did. He was no longer our biddable companion, easy-going, so long as each day we managed to work in ample physical activity to siphon away the spill of excess energy he’d always had, even when newborn. As a baby, he used to almost dance on his back in his cot, even before he could roll or sit up. Allen nicknamed him Jumping Jack when he was only about 8 weeks old. Jack be nimble, Jack be quick…
The speed of growth, now, was astonishing, disorienting. Al and I both admitted that alongside sorrow’s deep clench, there was an almost — what, scientific awe? — at what this little boy’s scrambled genetic code could do; if awe carries a contrail of fear.
When all the results were in, all the recommendations for surgery, treatment, requests for students to witness him at the teaching hospital, could Jack meet visiting professors, would we mind Skype consultations with Switzerland, would a documentary shot for television be too invasive … his dad and I found we’d reached an agreement, almost without a final, clinching discussion. It’s as if, when lying in bed next to the person who has helped coax another tiny life, with all its complex idiosyncrasies, into the world, we don’t just communicate with language. Multiple rootlets of memory, history and emotion feeler out towards each other like subliminal rhizomes, the conclusions shuttling between them, swift as charged particles streaming hidden channels.
Our little boy was all strong hocks, shanks and hard, heavy hooves, now; more powerful on all fours than when upright; his face bones lengthened, drawn dramatically forward; the fine, polished, spiral-turned branch of the horn in his forehead both magnificent and freakish. We escorted him from the city with the dazed sobriety of ordering a hearse. Of course we were terrified of prosecution from the Ministry of Primary Industries or some other Ominous Body if we were caught; but didn’t the worthy, fascinated researchers have enough blood samples, tissue samples, every-living-aspect-of-Jack samples to stop their goddamn poking now? Every pragmatic conversation we had about what might happen to us if we went through with spiriting him away eventually descended into farce; each of us taking it in turns to look at the other as if they were the delusional one, then ending up with head in hands, waiting for the nausea of disbelief to subside.
We drove Jack to where a wild, tree-rich tract of land meets the coast: a near-pristine peninsula under conservation covenant. With climate change it’s likely to become an island within the next 20–30 years. I speculated about Jack living that long: isolated on this natural sanctuary, running with a herd of feral horses …
“We all need our little optimisms,” Allen said, not unkindly, as we watched Jack gain confidence once he was out of the rented float. Jack nosed around; sampled greenery; traced a ground scent. He swung one long, searching look at us over his shoulder.
“The eyes still look so human,” Allen said, and I let out a cracked sob. The noise startled Jack and he bolted. Cantering, regal, his hide gleaming like the licked-clean inside of a clam-shell, Jack now lifted and plunged his head with joy, as the beach expanse meant no obstacle for that strangely pared-back antler; the aberration in the center of an aberration.
“I used to wish for this,” I said, in horror: the treacle-slow, mud-to-your-knees horror of dreams, where foreknowledge is irrelevant. Except this was post-knowledge: memory’s delayed seep.
“What do you mean?” Allen asked.
“When I was about nine or ten,” I said. “I used to stand in my bedroom, wishing with all my might that when I opened my eyes, a fucking … unicorn would be outside. Misting my window with its breath. That it would find me because I had the right … sympathies for it to reveal itself. I said that thing out loud, once: the promise kids make. I’ll do anything. I’ll be good. I’ll do anything, if …”
“Jesus Christ,” said Allen. “Did you not read Rumplestiltskin? The universe doesn’t do fair barter. What in hell were you on?”
I cried harder, and he apologised. “Sweetheart, I was trying to be funny – I don’t know why. I don’t know why! I’m sorry. This whole thing is …” He put his arms around me, and with my head against his chest I felt him racked with delayed shock. Dread spilled through me again like dark, overturned ink as I swayed him back and forth. I wished we could rock ourselves away into the sleep of not knowing; escape this warp in truth’s fabric. Tilt back over the edge of time.
Eventually, as the sun lowered, we were both too cold to stand on shore any longer. We zipped up our puffer jackets, pulled scarves and hats out of our pockets, took a short walk down to the rock pools, to try to catch a last glimpse of Jack thundering along the sand, white hide and surreal, magnificent horn “glinting like quartz,” Allen said; but no, I thought. It’s more like milk. The long, cool pour of milk we would take to him when he woke as a small boy, thrashing and frantic in a nightmare’s sticky snares. How I’d loved the grateful ebbing of his sobs. How ignorant I’d been, that I was quietly feeding my own spectacularly unlikely grief.
Next week’s short story – and the last for 2019 – is by Nadine Anne Hura.
We value fearless, independent journalism. We hope you do too.
Newsroom has repeatedly broken big, important national news stories and established a platform for quality journalism on issues ranging from climate change, sexual harassment and bullying through to science, foreign affairs, women’s sports and politics.
But we need your support to continue, whether it is great, small, ongoing or a one-off donation. If you believe in high quality journalism being available for all please click to become a Newsroom supporter.