Marjorie woke that day with a distinct pain in her right ear—it was someone talking about her—isn’t that what they said? Your ears ring when someone is talking about you? But this wasn’t a ringing—it was a pain, deep. It seemed to radiate from her inner ear to the back of her throat and into the small glands of her neck.
Marjorie went into the restroom facilities and pulled a long white syringe out of the cabinet that hung above the sink. She looked at her coloring under the bathroom lights. Yellow, even in the bluish lights they had installed. She took the long, thin syringe to her ear and sucked out the soreness, then removed it from her ear, squirted it out into her palm, the source of her troubles. It was a green clump of cells, soft, soggy, and pulsing with life. The pressure was gone, and she could almost think clearly.
The mound, about the size of a golf ball, was hot in her hands. She turned it over before depositing it into the white machine beside her sink. It was sucked in with a whoosh, and she brushed her teeth in time to the soft humming of its cycle. When it pinged, alerting her the cycle was up, she spit out her toothpaste and checked its screen.
The flu—I wonder how that got there, she said aloud to no one. She depressed the machine’s “Cleaning” button and imagined how it incinerated the infected cells within.
Back in her bed, Marjorie wondered what having the flu would feel like. She tested out a cough and closed her eyes—scanning her body from top to bottom like she did in her daily meditation sessions. She didn’t feel anything else lurking so tangibly beneath her surface.
She thought of her scans and popped out of bed, flicked on the overhead lights in her sleeping chamber, and grabbed the 3D x-rays from her desk. She sat back in her plastic desk chair and held them to the overhead lights. One labeled "M," the other "T."
She held the "T" slide up in her left hand and saw the dual spheres of a skull with white patterns dancing inside. She had nearly memorized their symmetries, their standard irregularities. She was confident she could sketch them from memory if she tried.
She held the "M" slide up in her right hand. It was foreign and yet familiar. She could not follow the wavy lines to fruition. The roads led nowhere, pot holed and crazy. These cells that weighed so heavily on her. She put the two films back into the manila envelope, fastened it gingerly, and threw it with too much force onto the clear top of her desk. Her mother would not be happy to know that she took the scans. Once she cooled, she shuffled them to the bottom of a desk drawer.
Trisha had been dead for 116 days. But who was counting? All she could see was the brilliant red blood staining her center part. Blonde turning brown as she lay in the quiet wreckage of an accident. Trisha’s light, easy joy seemed uncomplicated to Marjorie, and it was so quickly wasted away.
The lesser twin remained.
Marjorie imagined the ocean lifting her up. She dove under the big waves, felt the salt water seeping into her skin. Cleaning—clearing—healing. She hoped the saline would swirl around her brain and ease the swelling of her sadness. Just a touch of salt water. Earth, air, water, and sky breaking and balancing the chemical compounds in her head. She saw her scans, puffy white clouds fluid and floating. No more stagnation.
After they found Marjorie floating in her bathtub, blood mixed with water in a dirty pink aftermath, the medical examiner fulfilled one request for her mother. She removed a small corner of Marjorie’s brain and put it into the machine next to her sink, where she had brushed her teeth mornings and evenings. The two stood waiting for the machine to complete its cycle.
Identified: Unspeakable Sadness
Marjorie’s mother and the medical examiner stood quietly, not daring to breathe as the machine made its next and final click, incinerating, for good, the sadness that Marjorie could not.
"Inflammation" was a finalist in our 2015 Short Fiction Contest.
Therese Tully explores themes of gender, mental disorder, and familial relationships in a body of work that focuses largely on introspection and everyday life.
Illustration by Keit Osadchuk.