|Posted by Troy McCombs on April 19, 2011 at 1:42 AM|
In The Aquarium
I woke up on a Wednesday morning with the absolute worst headache of my entire life. The bright sunshine blazing through the three windows of my living room only added extra discomfort to the many tiny jackhammers poking against my brain. Probably just caffeine withdraw, nothing a cup of black coffee wouldn't remedy. 'Sides, I had other things to worry about: work, work, and more work. But at the very least, I didn't have a nagging girlfriend or wife to worry about.
Or kids. Thank God.
I did my usual morning routine: pissed, ate breakfast, had several coffees, showered, clothed, packed a lunch. The only thing I did different was pop a few aspirin. The headache wasn't so bad anymore by the time I fed Harry, the last remaining goldfish in my oversized aquarium. All the others had died over the past several weeks. None ever lived very long, really. Harry had outlived them all, though. Can't say why. Just a survivor, I suppose. And he owned the tank. His plump orange form explored the rectangular glass case like it was the ocean he came from. I figured he was as happy as a fish could be, if a fish could experience a feeling such as happiness. He was to me as what Woofie, the Doberman, was to my neighbor. Woofie was their pet, Harry was mine. Only they had the bigger responsibility. I didn't.
I told him 'Bye', and he blinked his little round eyes at me as if to say 'See ya later'.
I was out the door.
I was not looking forward to work. I honestly could not remember my last satisfying day of work. These days, I tried to ask myself why I'd even gone to school to be a paralegal in the first place. Too late to back out now. I had bills to pay, car loans to make, and debts to pay off. Everyone always told me lawyers were greedy, money-grubbing monsters. Don't tell it to me. College is where they bleed you dry.
I arrived on time. Another day of paperwork, contracts, more contracts, and reviewing material until my eyes bled, ahead of me. My boss, Alister Simmons, the town's most well-known lawyer, was in a bad mood again. Surely he never showed it to his clients, but to us, he wasn't so withstanding. We were little people to him, pawns against a king on a chess board. The only thing on his mind was earning money.
I scratch that. The only thing on his mind was accumulating money. His staff was the ones earning it for him. We just got a tiny slice of the pie.
I spent four hours writing a draft contract he would probably rewrite from scratch later on. Worthless work. Every mistake I made would probably be highly criticized. His big, chubby face (this happened many on many occasions) would get red and that guttural voice of his would say: “Jesus, Rob, you went to school for two years to produce this? Scrap it. You'll have to write up another draft. Next time, do it better.
Today, that didn't happen. I did my job right, despite my returning headache, despite the meal my stomach growled for. I'd skipped lunch. The thought of eating made me nauseous. Stress tends to do that to a person.
I got home eight hours later. The first thing I did was take a hot bath. The second thing I did was drink a tall glass of milk. The third thing I did was vomit it back up. The fourth thing I did was plop onto the couch, ready for sleep. Sleep wouldn't come easily. Never did. Stress tends to keep a person awake, no matter how tired that person is.
Laying there, blinking my eyes and wishing the pain in my head away, I glanced at Harry, my best friend in aqua land. My best friend, period—sad, I know.
But he was not there.
Thinking I was too tired to notice him there—maybe he was hiding behind one of the ornaments or plastic plants—I got up, walked over, and peered into the illuminated aquarium. My eyes searched for Harry. My eyes searched every corner of that aquarium without actually diving into it. My only fish was nowhere to be found.
Bewildered, I carefully examined the outside perimeter of the tank. Maybe he'd somehow jumped out and fell to the floor. But when I looked, I saw no trace of Harry at all.
I was usually a rational person. Sane. Normal. I was certain no burglar had broken, took him, and left everything else untouched. Besides, I'd locked my door before I'd left, and had unlocked it upon my return. Was I certain?
None of my windows were broken when I checked them. They were all locked. Locked and in tact.
I went from room to room, making sure all my possessions were still here. They were. None were missing. All were in the same place and in the same shape I'd left them in. The only thing missing was Harry. My goldfish!
Maybe I was losing my sanity. Maybe the stress of work and everyday life was getting the better of me. Had Harry died? Had I flushed him and forgot about it? Pretended he was here, swimming, alive today, when he was actually in fish heaven with his fish siblings?
Where in the hell was he?
I spent hours lying around, trying to figure out what had happened, and whether this was a mistake on my part. That's what scared me the most. I swore I'd seen him this morning. Fed him. Said good-bye to him.
Or had I?
Was this an early onset of dementia? Was this the first stage of schizophrenia?
I didn't know. All I knew was that I was afraid, mostly of myself and my own mind, my own mental health. Truth was, Harry was gone. In time, perhaps me, too.
I didn't even remember falling asleep; or trying to, for that matter. Basically, the next thing I knew, it was morning. Sunny again. My head pounding against my skull again. There was a hot cup of coffee and six aspirin calling my name loud and clear.
Before all that, I got up, stretched, yawned, and absentmindedly glanced over at the fish tank.
It would have been interesting to have examined my face when I did so. To have seen the stark shock and disbelief gouged into my features would have been priceless. I didn't know what I expected to see, or if I expected to see anything but a glass case full of nothing but water and ornaments. Now something was swimming in the aquarium, and it wasn't Harry.
I padded over to it, staring without blinking. I got a good look into the tank. Were my eyes fooling me? Was I still dreaming?
If anything, the organism resembled a jellyfish. An ugly one, at that. The dammed thing was nearly glowing and was throbbing. I could not describe it in detail, but I will use simple words/phrases to express what I witnessed. Tentacled. Single-eyed. Shifting from color to color to color. A puckered little mouth filled with what looked like sprouting cuticles. Oozing slime continuously. Horrible looking. Nothing more, nothing less. This thing was an impossibility, a figment of my imagination. It had to be. What other explanation was there? I'd snapped. I wasn't sane anymore.
But if I showed it to someone, and they saw it too, then …
I couldn't contain myself. The pain in my head throbbed. My heart pounded throughout every vessel in my being. I didn't know if I was dying, having a mental breakdown, or a severe panic attack. I dropped to the floor, never turning away from the little monstrosity that was looking right back at me through some water and a paper-thin layer of glass. What was it? Where had it come from? Why was it here n—
Like last night, I do not exactly remember passing out. I barely remembered anything about what happened before I passed out. Once I did, I was comfortable in la-la land; the next, I was miserable in reality.
I woke up in a hospital room almost twenty-four hours later. I was alone, resting in a cozy bed, the smell of latex, cleaner, and old people, very evident. Everything was brightly lit, and everything within my view was white. No wonder why people thought they saw heaven after being revived in hospitals. Hospitals are the white light, the cleanliness-is-next-to-Godliness sanctuaries. People just get the two mixed up, that's all.
I felt well everywhere except one place: my head. I couldn't think without it hurting. I couldn't try to remember without the pain digging deeper. It was similar to a bad toothache, just in my brain instead. I knew it wasn't going away anytime soon.
“Rob Evans?” The doctor, a tall middle-eastern man with mounds of dark hair and a hefty beard, entered the room like he owned it. He wasted no time in shaking my hand. His grip was monstrous.
“My name is Doctor Ingrid. How are you feeling now that you're awake?”
“My head throbs.”
“I figured it would. I'll give you some pain medication to help that. Can you tell me what you do remember?”
I didn't want to try, so I shook my head.
“Okay. You fainted two days ago—”
“Two what? Days?” Was my hearing messed up too?
“Yes, you've been out for a little over forty-eight hours. If it wasn't for your friend who found you, you may be in a much worse state.”
I peered into the doctor's dark, terse eyes. He was hiding something from me. I needed to know what it was: “Why was I out for two days? Why does my head pound?”
He cleared his throat and looked down, as if he didn't want to tell me. Or maybe he was just trying to find the right words to say. “Mr. Evans, there is a tumor in your brain. It's deep inside, so there's very little chance we can operate and remove it without causing further damage. It's growing at a rapid rate. Now, there are things we can do to suppress the pain, but that's about it. The prognosis does not look good, quite honestly.”
This was the worst news I'd ever heard. For a split second, I didn't feel any pain anywhere. My psyche, from somewhere deep within myself, was screaming to me the harsh reality of the situation: You're dying. You are going to die! There is no way out of this. There's no pill that can fix you. This is it, the inevitable. I had went to college for nothing. I had worked for that asshole, Alister Simmons, in vain. I had lived little over twenty years just so it could come to an abrupt end.
If shock was my first reaction, anger was my second. I skipped denial altogether.
Then I asked the question I dreaded knowing the answer to: “How long do I have? Till this thing kills me?”
Saying kills me and meaning it was like someone stepping on your own grave several years in the future.
The doctor paused again. “Days, weeks at most. It's hard to say for sure. You can—and I'd advise you to—stay in the hospital. You'll get better care here if something goes wrong.”
“When something goes wrong, you mean.”
The doctor bowed his head. “Of course. But it's your decision.”
“Then I am going back home.” I glanced absent-absentmindedly around the room, and my eyes caught site of the wallpaper bordering the space between the walls and the ceilings. It showed pictures of fish lined up back to back. Only one thing came to my damaged mind: Harry. Harry. Harry. Harry.
Then I remembered the thing that had taken the place of Harry. Had I dreamt it? Had I hallucinated it? Or was it real? If so ….
“I gotta go!” I got out of the hospital bed as fast as my body let me, but my mind slowed me down.
“Mr. Evans, please. You're in no shape to rush.”
I peered into his black eyes so deeply, I thought I might be able to see into his soul. “I have to go home. I think I know the remedy to my tumor.”
What I just said brought a strange expression to his face. I don't think I've ever seen anyone look so perplexed in all my years.
And, according to him, I might not have had anymore years ahead of me.
But that didn't matter now. What mattered was getting home.
I wasted little time. I whizzed right by him, out into the hospital hallways, and toward the sliding glass doors some twenty yards away. Nothing was going to stop me, not any doctor, not any tumor, and not the thing in my fish tank.
Many thoughts burst into my aching head during the taxi ride back home. These thoughts made the pain worse, but they were probably necessary thoughts. They sparked my imagination unlike anything had since I was a child. Their meaning suggested something very strange, something I couldn't begin to conceive. I just hoped the truth of the matter was that I had not envisioned it. If I was right, I could end my tumor quite simply.
The cab pulled up to my bungalow at dusk. I got out, still dressed in hospital scrubs, and could feel the cool air brushing against my hindquarters. I pictured people staring at my exposed butt, laughing. So what if they did?
“Cash money, feller!” The cabbie, a dirty, smelly black man with a scarred lip, stuck his hand out through his window and rubbed his thumb and fingers together. I told him I would pay him pronto, once I went inside and got my wallet.
First thing was first. I marched up the three concrete steps leading to my front door. I threw it open and entered, switching on the light. My wallet was laying right there, on the kitchen table. The butts of several twenties poked out through the crease in the leather.
I looked away from the brown cowhide and at the archway leading into the living room. I felt my heart palpitate as my feet took me there almost by themselves. Once inside, I turned on the lamp and light illuminated the room. I stepped farther in and my eyes zoned in on the aquarium. I wasn't sure what I expected to find, but I did feel relieved. I wasn't crazy after all. The little monstrosity that had taken Harry's place was still there, still immersed in its limited aquatic world. Question after question invaded my mind, but I brushed them all away.
I stormed over to the tank and watched the thing float, twist and push against the water. It was twice as large now as it had been when I'd first seen it, glowing, thriving, casting unusual colors against my walls and my furniture. Why was it there? What did it want? From which bizarre world had it come? Had it caused my brain tumor? Was it trying to kill me? If so, then there was a way to stop it.
Nervously, I reached into the tank. The small creature's body pulsated along with the constant throbbing inside my skull. When my fingers wrapped around the slimy mutant, a feeling of euphoria washed over me. I felt like I was high on heroin, or some other powerful depressant. The only thing that remained was the pain—the extreme agony riving my brain to pieces. Maybe if I ripped it to pieces, my tumor would forever disappear, too.
Gripping the thing firmly in both hands, and believing I had conquered cancer in a way nobody had before, I split the pint-sized monster in half with one forceful pull.
--This was the last thing Rob Evans ever did. He died immediately after killing the unknown specimen. A brain tumor was later found as the cause of the man's death. The dead aquatic specimen was studied by several scientists, but none could conclude much about it except two things: it was partially made of cancerous brain tissue, and it held certain characteristics of a Turritopsis 'immortal' jellifish. Where it came from and how it got into Evans' tank remains a daunting mystery.
The mystery Rob Evans never got to know, was this: that little thing he'd ripped apart was the physical representation of his brain tumor. Had he waited a little longer, his headaches and tumor would have drifted away. Had he did the opposite, and let the creature live, the unthinkable would have happened. Rob Evans, an ordinary man who wanted the best out of life, could have lived—if he was not murdered or killed—for the rest of eternity on earth.