It Rises from Between My Bones
By Donna J. W. Munro
Sitting on the toilet for the first sleepy morning pee, I felt my ovaries twist as a little piece of me trying burst through in a micro-explosion of tissue, born into my desert of a womb.
It made no sense.
I sat staring at my bald head and face in the mirror hanging across from the toilet. If I weren’t the one making my features screw up in twisting confusion it would have been hilarious. Chemo makes your face strange. No hair. Not one brow or lash. It’s like looking at one of those big-eyed aliens that the tabloids are forever finding, autopsying, and giving breathless reports about probes and pregnancies. I looked just like that only not so green and way more dumbfounded.
How could my ovaries be spitting out an egg? I’d been in a chemically induced menopause since this whole mess started. Since I’d found that little lump in the same place they’d found Mom’s so many years ago.
My whirlwind started in the office of the doe-eyed technician running the ultra-sound. She’d murmured in positive little half notes until her hand froze. She stopped and pulled the wand out of my armpit, glooped on more warmed gel that honestly felt like it had been harvested from inside a body cavity instead of the little bottle warmer next to her keyboard.
Then she said, “Oh.”
And typed little rapid-fire notes, pausing to press the wand into my armpit again and then tut about it quietly.
“Let me just step out and get the doctor.”
The doctor at the women’s health center is usually a woman with a kind smile and a cheery disposition. I’m sure this doctor usually had a smile like that, only that’s not what I saw while I laid there on the table, greased up and naked in my middle-aged, sagging skin suit. Her smile strained at the corners like it would crack.
“Let’s take a look.”
She scanned it and with a thin needle, she punctured my skin to pull out a sample from my armpit and from my right breast.
“It’s probably nothing,” she said with her overly tight smile.
We both knew she was lying.
Two weeks, a positive identification for malignancy, and every kind of test, scan, or examination I could imagine and I had my diagnosis. Stage II b breast cancer, just like Mom.
My treatment? Lots of chemo, then radiation, and after… Well, we didn’t really talk about the after.
My cancer’s poison? Azithromycin.
The red death they call it.
We pumped it into my port every other Thursday, directly into my bloodstream. No I.V. line into a vein because if that stuff held up in your arm, it would… I don’t know. They never told me, but I imagined the stalking villain of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death swimming through my veins, ripping through my viscera with a flaming sword. They pushed a fat needle through my soft upper breast into the lump of a port lying there like a buried tombstone under my white and blue veined skin. The flush of saline that washed into my tastebuds was the bitter bite of plague spreading through me, only the poison wasn’t meant for me. It was for the true invader growing inside a duct of my breast and bursting through the walls, dotting my lymph nodes with little clones.
When the hair on my head fell out a week after the first treatment, I lost every other hair on my body, too. My husband Matt laughed and said, “Now you don’t have to worry about shaving your legs or your pits.” I laughed, but when I looked in the mirror, I was looking into the eyes of a stranger stooped from the weakness that the chemo created. Haunted eyes.
I didn’t want to die.
Not then, anyway.
I loved my life teaching high schoolers about ancient civilizations and living with my Matt, my handsome husband and best friend. But the shadows of my mother and father’s deaths had always lay across our happiness, a cloud that blocked our sun.
And now I was living the nightmare.
I was a bald-headed, chemo brained beast with a puckered set of scars where they’d cut the tissue out of me. Under the scars, bulbous expanders stretched my chest muscles until they ached. Every system of my body, so firmly in my control before the cancer, became another bit of collateral damage sacrificed to my cure.
My skin grew dry and thin as tissue paper. Brown patches appeared on my arms and face like blotchy burns. My doctors shrugged and told me I’d be covering those with foundation for the rest of my days.
My stomach rejected everything I loved, then still managed to either bind up my bowels or turn them into a liquid hot mush that would leave me panting and fevered every time I went to the bathroom.
And the scars. So many scars.
So many little deaths in my body. All things meant to save me.
That’s why sitting on the toilet in the morning of my sixth round of chemo, I was stunned to feel my ovaries, dead for months inside my belly, pulse to life with a heartbeat all their own. I hissed as the pain throbbed outward, clentching and shooting until I shuddered. The other foot soldier symptoms Major-General Cancer visited on my body hadn’t wrenched such pain from me.
I felt it push its way forward in my left side, a tiny swimming stone. Then the rip that curled me into a pink ball on the toilet, clutching myself together like it might blow me apart. It was everything I’d felt every twenty-eight days since I’d gotten my first visit from “monthly Martha” at age 11. All that, as they say, and a bag of chips. The normal burst of pain I’d felt every month, but like my ovary knew it would never get another chance. Like it had a show to put on.
Too much pain to scream, besides I didn’t want my sweet husband to have another ugly image in his mind to go along with the memories of drains weaving like pale vines in and out of puckered, puss-filled holes in my skin or the fatty, ripped incision he’d taped together to get me to the urgent care. Around the pain, I knew this was something I had to bear alone.
Most women do.
It took ten minutes to tear out of its pod. By the time I could stand, sweat poured from my body and I shivered inside my tightening skin. I turned the shower on as hot as I could take and stood with my head down and arms braced as the little ball bounced around in my uterus, looking for purchase.
I expected it to be born that minute in a gush of red blood that would circle the drain and be done.
It settled in. Burrowed.
All day I felt its roots clutching at me.
Making coffee, a cramp twisted through my pelvis. I winced as it cut into the soft bed of skin that hadn’t had a blood lining in months.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Matt asked around his Grape Nuts.
He’s fast. Always has been. When I looked at him and sucked up a hard breath, he was out of the chair. My eyes went back into my head and that’s when he caught me.
It took a good bit of time for me to come back to myself.
He said he’d put me on the couch and that I’d moaned and cried in my sleep.
When I woke up, the sky was blue and my pain was gone. I pressed against the soft swell of my belly and there was no tenderness. No shooting, stabbing pain. I thought, maybe it was just another one of those personal hells that come with fighting against a tumor. Another indignity that the doctor would note in the computer for posterity, nodding and mumbling some shit about how each thing was to be expected.
Who wrote their scripts?
I didn’t have words for the other bald skeletons that wandered through the waiting room of the cancer center. We were all hollowed out and skin stretched over bones by the treatment that killed the vile little bits of us that were out of control. The fast growers die first. The hairs, then the nails, then the tumors. Sometimes the tooth enamel. Sometimes other things I didn’t know I could lose.
One time I spit out something so thick with blood, it was black. A lump of ooze against the white of the sink that wouldn’t wash down. I braced myself with one arm, knowing that some things made me stumble. I reached a trembling finger down and touched it as my stomach roiled in the middle of me. In my head I heard something keening so sad, so wetly. I pushed my fingers into the clot and it mashed like a grape.
It had been inside me minutes before and now I smeared it against the petri dish of my sink bowl, looking at the pieces. A red circle striated with a sickly dark yellow. A black coned chunk. A flattened orb that had oozing tendrils trailing from it like roots.
The thing twitched. Contracted as I leaned in and poked it once more.
Matt knocked on the door as I threw up all over the sink, the mirror, myself. He helped me back into the shower, eyes averted as I tried to cover my scars with my hands. He has the patience of a saint.
After the morning’s dose of chemo, he brought me home and wrapped me gently in a blanket on the couch. Sometimes when I laid there, I watched him out of the corner of my eye. How could he love me with these things growing inside me? He hadn’t married those out of control cells trying to take me over. Did he see the fight as a noble struggle? Did the idea of my own cells trying to kill me repulse him? Keep him up at night?
It did me.
I dozed there under the blanket with the local news playing the background soundtrack to my personal hell. I heard the silver-haired anchor reporting the surge in rare and virulent cancers around old war factories, the places where early caches of uranium and plutonium disappeared after WWII. Buried, he said, in fields where kids played ball, next to creeks like the one where my cousins and I picked crawdads from under rocks to boil and eat for lunch.
That they glowed didn’t matter to me and my cousins.
Their mother died of breast cancer too, only thirty-four years old. Only two years younger than me.
That night, after Matt tried to get me to eat some mashed potatoes that I threw up immediately, he helped me up the stairs. He’d put me in bed and propped me up on pillows and he’d made love to me with such a sweet slowness.
I don’t know how he could touch me as I was.
After he fell into a humming snore, the warm buzz of his attentions melted into a tightness. An awareness. My skin didn’t fit around my bones and those bones seemed to dislike being inside me anymore. I felt like I’d turn inside out with the heat that rose from my middle. Not a good heat. Not lusty satisfaction, no. It was a fire that burned away at me. Crisped me.
And inside I felt the hard pieces that moved like pebbles in my veins.
Sleep, voices inside told me. Sleep is healing. Sleep is the only way to be strong enough.
But sleep gave the pieces of me that revolted inside my body the peace they needed to wrap themselves around my organs. Little boa constrictors crushing my lungs with rippling muscular hugs. Squeezing my heart. I felt them moving through the secret passages inside me. Growing. Pushing.
I put my hand on the softness of my belly, the sag of my age that bubbled there. The pads of my fingers rested on the smoothness of my skin and I tapped my fingers in a rolling rhythm, the memory of a song that we’d sung when I was a kid playing with my cousins in the rippling lake our grandmother took us to every week. The muddy water and the creaking gray dock all seemed so fantastic, so not of this world. I remember them daring me to swim under the dock and weave my way through the crossbeam gaps that existed between the joists. I ducked in so brave and then the echoing drips and the bulbing gray insulation stuck out in lumps floating along the edges of the joists sent me back under the water trying to escape, but under the water’s surface down became up and I kept reemerging in the closed universe under the dock. I wept in there. Screamed for my cousins to come and get me. They watched me through the cracks and dropped little rocks down on me. The slick wood I clung to had green hairs of seaweed coating it like the fur of an animal and the waves lifted and lowered the dock in respiration. I don’t remember Grandma jerking me out from under the dock, but she carried me up onto the grass weeping.
My cousins said that I’d disappeared so they didn’t get a spanking. That they couldn’t see me. Grandma tanned their asses good for lying.
But I knew it was true. I had disappeared.
It was another world and I’d slipped into it sideways.
What was happening inside of me now felt just like that.
My leg muscles refused to settle and my toes weren’t connected to my feet. Neuropathy. The death of my nerves made no sense. I couldn’t feel my toes, but the flickering pains that shot up my calves were real enough. Beneath my fingers, my belly moved in a rolling wave, first right and then left. Something under my skin rose, pushing against my fingertips. A caress with skin keeping us apart.
The first time I’d felt the rising lumps under my skin, I’d wondered if the cancer was blooming like flowers inside me, lumping up and following the heat of my fingers. I’d gone into the bathroom to try and see it in the light, maybe squeeze it like a pimple or lance it. When it screamed, I blacked out and hit my head on the toilet. A trip to the emergency room and Matt was telling the doctor that I’d been rambling about things inside my skin.
“Chemo does strange things to the mind. Just keep her still and hydrated, ice on the bump. She’s got a concussion, but it’s a mild one. Call the oncologist in the morning,” the E.R. Doc had said.
I didn’t try to lance lumps anymore. There were too many of them anyway. I did wonder if they’d all come from my ovaries, birthed when I’d been sleeping or in the cloud of codeine the doc gave me after the double mastectomy. Little baby tumors making their way to soft secret places between my cells.
Between my bones.
Matt asked me how I’d slept each morning and if I needed anything every night.
I’d learned to say no.
The time between the course of chemo blurred into moments of bloody gums and constipation, vomit and diarrhea, and of course the traveling lumps that grew and receded by the hour. The doctors changed the chemical poison to Taxol and my legs became so weak I sometimes had to crawl on all fours to the bathroom. I didn’t even try to sleep with Matt upstairs since each stair rise was a mountain I couldn’t climb and my legs gyrated restlessly all night long.
They didn’t belong to me anymore.
At night, the darkness changes the world you’ve built so carefully. Every curated item in your home sharpens, echoes inside itself. For me, watching the change from my warm home, bright walls, happy art, cherished books, and overstuffed couches into monster movie reproductions splashed in deep and swimming shadow. The difference bloomed in the night until I wasn’t in my lovely house anymore. And the things inside me grew bigger then, feeding on my fear or feeding it. It felt like they were stretching me from inside out, creating empty spaces.
I split in two.
There was the rational dweller of the real world who’d fight cancer like a badass, survive to wear ridiculous pink outfits and walk in survivor parades for the rest of her life. Then there was the night dwelling traveler, the cocoon for whatever was growing inside. The little girl who’d slid sideways into a world she didn’t understand.
We went to the oncologist the next day.
“The tumors are…” the oncologist took a deep breath and then rushed on into his bad news script, “spreading. Multiple sites including your brain. Your bones.”
Matt squeezed my hand and sobbed, leaning in to catch the doctor’s words. Searching for hope.
“Four lesions and one deep tumor in the mid-brain…”
He pointed to cloudy shadows on the grey film.
“And the lungs…”
Big blooming tumors clustered in the bottom of the lobes.
“And the stomach…”
And that’s when I let myself slide.
Turns out that when you grow darkness inside you, you are the doorway.
I pressed the fingers of my free hand against my middle, feeling the movements within, and curled up around myself. Matt squeezed my hand again, but he’d given himself over to understanding the doctor’s prognosis. I hated to leave him alone there, but I didn’t think I could manage one more second of the rational cancer warrior losing the fight for her life. The lying side I faced out to the world collapsed when I saw those clusters and shadows inside me.
I slid down into myself, feeling the alienness of what lived there in the spaces between my insides. The echoes in between the rafters of bones and the shimmering lake of fluid. Waving cilia like fur coated the pathways. And hanging from every edge, every crossroad inside me were the bulging gray growths. Tumors they’d called them. But here, they had tendrils that whipped and throbbed, wrapping around my honeycombing bones, growing like a poisonous vine into the flesh of my organs.
My body their birthing chamber.
I didn’t scream. Not anymore.
Looking at the horror in my flesh felt like facing my own truth. Like it was what I should have done all along.
I reached out with my limb, not a hand exactly. A phantom of a hand like appendage wavered like a misty and unformed idea. But when that hand stroked the gray flesh of one of the invaders, I felt it with more surety than the neuropathy dulled flesh of my real body could feel in our reality. My imagined world’s fingertips had healthy nerves and receptors not damaged by poison.
The flesh, slick under my fingers, warmed to my touch, hummed under the pressure of it. From the center of the lumpy, gelatinous body, an eye as red as an angry wound and shot with bright yellow highlights, opened with a slow flowing retreat of the thing’s flesh. I’d woken it up. All around me, I felt the weight of eyes turning. All the invaders fixed me with their united gaze, though some were as far away from me as the earth from the moon. They were many and they were one.
They were in me.
My bones grew them. My cells became them. My blood fed them.
They were me.
Inside my mind or the consciousness that held me in this place, a buzzing vibrated from inside to out. A voice of wings made of hairs and shells and bitter taste. A voice that burbbled through that red-eyed gaze. These things in me, my disease or my monsters- I don’t really know- they did know things. They were the crack in the door I needed to understand.
I was the door that had to open.
The nearest one grabbed for me, desperation rippling around it in a pheromonal stink. Its tendril reached, lance-like and tipped with a tooth. It wanted me but—
“Are you okay?” Matt pulled me to him, yanking me free. He pressed me against his skin and I burrowed my face into the space between his jacket and his tee-shirt, sobbing. Keening with a darkness that poured from inside out.
My voice and their voices screamed in concert.
Matt must have thought I was mourning my diagnosis-terminal and only weeks to live. He clutched me to him so hard I heard his heart beating. I heard the blood swishing in its chambers.
There were no echoes inside of him.
The doctor gave me a prescription for sleeping pills and a sad smile and sent us home with brochures about home health aides and hospice care. Matt cried without sound, gripping the steering wheel and glancing at me. For the first time, his eyes filled with the future. The real future where he’d be alone and have to make all those decisions that I usually made for the both of us. Where he’d bring up the laundry and I wouldn’t be there to fold it. Where he’d cook dinner and do the dishes too. The partnership had already stopped with my illness, but now he knew that I was just an incubator for the death that grew day by day and that he’d be left alone.
That was the rational world.
I started talking as he drove because I knew he’d only sort of hear what I needed to tell him. That he’d let it go because too much reality filled his mind.
“I’m not really dying, Matt. I’m growing little monsters.”
“Tumors,” Matt said. He was used to my flights of fancy. It’s how I talked. How I thought.
“Not tumors. They are little monsters that I made. I didn’t mean to. I…I know you can’t understand this, but I ate poison when I was little. Swam in dioxin and radiated creeks. My dad brought home flakes of asbestos and served it up like salt on dinner when he’d shake it free from his coat.”
He’d slowed the car because the rush hour traffic piled up on the highway in front of him. He glanced over at me with disquiet in his puffy red eyes.
“This is the breast cancer. You heard, Doctor–”
“Listen to me. I’m the doorway. I know it now. Cancer is just the cutting tool. The thing that makes the door come open.”
He reached for me, probably readying a beautiful lie about fighting the inevitable. About how strong I was.
“Don’t.” I jerked back, banging my head into the window with a clunk. I didn’t even feel it. “Look.”
I held up my hands in the long space growing between us. Pink and fleshy, my hands hung there in the slanting light but a gray corona of shadow that shouldn’t exist in the bright afternoon shimmered around them.
“I touched one of them. It told me how long they’ve tried to open a door. How hard they’ve worked to change us. To change the whole world.”
I quieted then, giving my strength over to holding myself here. My eyes fluttered shut and I didn’t respond when he called my name.
Inside, the pieces of me growing in the soup of poisons sang me into a stupor.
They promised me so many things.
That night, Matt gave me my pain pill and my sleeping pill and left the bottles out on the table. Maybe he thought it was a kindness to leave my life in my hands.
We’d talked about it when my father had died, cancer in his colon, his lungs, and his brain. There had been black vomit and diapers and my poor Dad’s sad expression. He’d hated that we even had to take care of him. He said sorry when he soiled himself. Then my mother had laid in a nightmare she couldn’t wake from for twenty days. She moaned and tried to shift, but she was so weak then. In so much pain. I’d told Matt that I would want to kill myself if it got that bad.
And here I was, just as bad as them and Matt had left the option on the table.
Only, the cancer wasn’t just a ball of fast-growing cells.
Someday, scientists might recognize that they’d been like the medieval medicine men with their bleeding and leeching. That they hadn’t recognized a bigger truth. A cosmic truth.
That the disease was first contact.
The next day, we went to the hospice office, then to the lawyer to sign my final wishes into reality. I held it together until the lawyer started talking about me in the past tense. I’m sure I only imagined it, but I started weeping and Matt hustled me to the car.
In my ears, a choir of monsters sang.
“Why me?” I whispered to the creatures inside. The me that was part of this place and part of the other spoke back in the buzzing that sounded like insect armor rubbing on itself.
“You are the first to peek through the keyhole,” they said and didn’t say at the same time. “The first to synthesize poison without destroying your growths.”
Growths, I heard, but it wasn’t quite the right translation.
The idea behind the word was one I didn’t have words for. The idea flashed around in my head and I saw the creatures again, but behind them, through them and me and the toxic blood that held us together, I saw another world blooming right inside of my body. The things beyond that rectangle of space flowed through an orange burning sky, shaded by the brightness behind them. But the outlines made no sense in my mind.
Massive limbs that didn’t flap or walk or touch any surface. Flagella so long and tangled there wasn’t any way to see their beginnings and ends at the same time. The expanse captured there was like a mirror you might look through sideways and see on into everything that wasn’t in front of it. A trick of optics, the scientists might say, but what did they know?
Someday they might recognize… only they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t because–
“Sweetie?” Matt shook me. We were home, car ticking away its heat and bright cement of the driveway solid under us. “You weren’t… there for a minute.”
He stared, blue eyes wider than they should ever be. So much wonder, but not the kind you wanted. He wondered that the world you know could go sideways so fast. The wonder that exists beyond fear lay in his gaze.
“I’m here. Just a trick of the light, I guess. Optics maybe?” I croaked, throat dry from the choking vision and the clawing silence I’d climbed out of.
“Right,” he said. He hurried around the car and helped me out, waving off the kind offers of our neighbors for food or cleaning or even to give him a break to take a walk or a shower. Nice folks.
It really was a shame.
He got me set back up in my recliner, blanket cuddled around me.
“There. A toasty burrito.”
A sweet old joke. A groove in the well-worn record of our life.
I smiled with my lips closed because I worried that the orange light peeking around the edges of the doorway inside of me might shine out through the spaces in my teeth, lighting them like bright, squared candy corns.
I shouldn’t have worried about it. He didn’t want to be near me anymore and was starting to turn away.
I wasn’t mad about it.
He’d seen the shadow of what I was in the other place.
I’d phased out and in right in front of him.
“I’ll get dinner,” he said.
I reached out so quickly you’d never have known I was dying. I caught his wrist in the cage of my fingers and pulled him so close I thought he might be able to smell the pheromones my monsters pumped into my bloodstream to challenge the others to come through.
It was the final call.
“Stay,” I said, clinging to him.
I’ve always loved him. Since high school, through mullets and poverty and disappointment and joy we’d been inseparable. The perfect team. He be a part of this terrible thing with me, but I wanted to look into his eyes until I couldn’t anymore.
I held his hand and felt him shudder, but he was the best man I’d ever known and I knew he’d stay because I wanted it.
“They changed us,” I whispered, not clear if I had enough breath in the sound for him to hear. “They directed us to change. The pills and the pollution and the chemicals all came from their projections. I’m a projection now, Matt. Maybe since I swam in the lake as a kid. Maybe since the creek and the crawdads. Maybe they made me that way in my mom’s cancerous uterus.”
I coughed a wrenching, wet cough that sprayed the changed blood all over my hands. I wiped the glowing orange stuff on the blanket over my legs and he watched with a gaping mouth and wet eyes. He didn’t move though. He must’ve thought I was dying.
“I’m the first, but there are more coming. I’m sorry, my love.”
He shook his head and ran his hand through my hair. Our tears flooded our eyes as my doorway opened. Tears that boiled off his blistering cheeks. His hair crisped and curled as it burned. I wanted to stop, but I am what they made me.
The fire bloomed outward from my body, each of the little spots the doctor called malignancies collapsed into voids and spaces. The me that was left inside, swung open as wide as my body and the whole sky. The others pressed and struggled to get through that space. It didn’t hurt. I was beyond the physical pain of stretching like a cosmic cervix giving birth to galaxies.
My poor Matt didn’t know I watched his eyes until they dried up into glass. I held his skull until it turned to ash. I pressed the ash to my open frame, painting my lintel with the soft gray bits until they, too, burned away.
Inside out or sideways, I’m the door.
I’m the first one, but there are more coming.
About the Author
Donna J. W. Munro’s pieces are published in Dark Moon Digest # 34, Flash Fiction Magazine, Astounding Outpost, Nothing’s Sacred Magazine IV and V, Corvid Queen, Hazard Yet Forward (2012), Enter the Apocalypse (2017), Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths II (2018), Terror Politico (2019), It Calls from the Forest (2020), Borderlands 7 (2020), Gray Sisters Vol 1(2020), Borderlands Vol 7 (2020), and others. Her upcoming novel, Revelations: Poppet Cycle 1, will be published by Omnium Gatherum in January 2021.
About the Narrator
Sandra Espinoza is a New York born and raised voice actress with a background in English literature and writing. After a childhood where video games were banned from the house, she one-eighty’d so hard she’s finally in them and never leaving. Voice over training in between jobs, fan projects she created for her favorite games soon gained recognition and lead to her first paid role with Wadjet Eye Games.
Some games Sandra’s voiced for include the Primordia, Apotheon, Heroes of Newerth, Marvel’s Avengers Academy, and most recently Brawl Stars by Clash of Clans developer Supercell. She also provides voice over and editing services for countless lifestyle and education podcasts. When she’s not voice acting you can catch her on Twitter or Facebook under the handle “DustyOldRoses,” obsessing over good food, good games and the color pink.