BY RON GIBSON, JR.
I was playing outside, in front of my house, while my mom sat inside, next to the screen door, within earshot. It was one of those days where reporters cook an egg on the sidewalk to show viewers just how hot it is. So to see someone dressed entirely in black walking through the sidewalk shimmers was a surprise. The closer they came, the more they appeared to be a little, old woman wearing a black dress, black gloves, black stockings, black veil, black, square-toed shoes, black everything, not a speck of skin showing. I say 'appeared to be' because I was trusting the clothing. For all I knew it may have very well been a small man, cloaked in black, with evil intentions.
Except, once the person stopped and stared at me through several layers of veil, something buried beneath all that black felt like an old woman to me. And, although no words were spoken, I also felt that she wanted me to leave with her.
I started to cry and ran into the house. My mom was startled by the screen door and demanded to know what was wrong. I kept crying, not saying anything, until I saw the woman in black had followed me up the front steps and was standing, silently staring at me through the screen door.
I shrieked, "Leave me alone!"
My mom asked, "What happened? Why do you want me to leave you alone?"
"Her!" I shrieked and pointed at the screen door. "Leave me alone! Make her go away, mom!"
I don't know if my mom actually saw the woman in black standing in the doorway when she yelled, "Get the hell out of here! Leave my son alone!"
After continued reluctance, the woman finally turned around and left. When I ran to the front window to see if she was walking up the sidewalk, I saw nothing. It was like she had vanished.
Shortly after my encounter with the woman in black, I attended a birthday party. Despite the uncommon heat, apparently it was my birthday. The house was full of cousins, cake, ice cream and presents. Flash bulbs captured my embarrassment, face lit with candle light, my friends and cousins throwing bunny ears up behind each others' heads.
Then I started throwing up. My mom and some other adult discussed, on the other side of the bathroom door, that I may have eaten too much cake and ice cream. But that opinion changed when the vomiting was so violent and continuous, I was gasping for air.
Family and friends filed out the door, and my parents rushed me to the hospital. In the lobby of the emergency room, the nurse handed me a kidney-shaped vomit tray that I knew would never contain all of my vomit if I heaved again.
With other emergency room patients watching, I retched, filling and overfilling the tray. A janitor was sent for to mop up around my feet. The nurse brought over two trays this time, but it was the same story: I retched, filled, then overfilled them. The nurse and the janitor's body language seemed to indicate (at least to me) they were growing increasingly alarmed at the volume I was spewing.
I don't know if this spectacle got me admitted faster or not, but once I was hurried through those entrance doors, it seemed every nurse or doctor in the place was poking me, touching me and hooking me up to something or other. When a nurse came in just to take my temperature I began to scream bloody murder, not wanting any more things done to me. I just wanted to lay in bed and die.
This went on for days. Although I stopped vomiting, I became so weak I couldn't get out of bed. I remember peeing myself, feeling the warmth spread throughout my bed before it turned cold, waiting for the nurse to come and give me a sponge bath and change my sheets.
Outside, the air turned cold, and one night it started to snow. I remember watching the snowflakes blowing sideways in my hospital windows, watching them stick to the rooftop, turning the parts of downtown Seattle I could see from my vantage point into a wintry white.
The next day, a nurse came to my room and had me get up out of bed. My legs unsteady, my head swimming with lightheadedness, she instructed me to walk down the hallway, past the nurses station, to a playroom.
When I arrived, nurses were reaching out of open windows and scooping snow into bowls for the sick children to play with. The other children seemed delighted to be playing with snow and the roomful of toys, but all I wanted was to go back to bed. After ignoring my bowl of snow, I asked the nurse if I could go back to bed. She said all right, and I slowly walked away, alone, the sound of laughing children fading down the hall, as I crawled into bed, exhausted.
One evening orderlies rolled me out on a gurney into a room that looked like a mini-operating theater. They transferred me onto a cold, metal table, facedown. Amongst this small crew of doctors and interns, my dad held my hand and told me not to worry. Under a high-powered operating light, the doctor untied my hospital dressing gown, fully exposing my backside. He rubbed something cold on my lower back, told my dad to tell me (as if I were not there) that I would feel some pressure but that it would be over quickly. Then, unceremoniously, the doctor injected the spinal tap into my lower back. I shut my eyes tight, cringing more from the change of pressure from my dad's hand, indicating something was going on and it must look bad, than the actual pain from the spinal tap.
In the end, the doctors found nothing. Two weeks (I believe) of hospitalization, lots of tests, and not one diagnosis in the bunch. Whatever it was finally ran its course.
Slowly, I regained some strength, before doctors were satisfied with releasing me back to my parents, back to my world.
When I look back on these memories, they feel absolutely real, even if logic shakes its head every step of the way. Although I maintain having a scientific mind, some of these anomalies are personal exceptions to the rule.
The little, old woman in black becomes my great-grandmother, she having died shortly before these incidents. Although I have only the vaguest of memories of her, she becomes this loving specter that came back to see me one last time and I misinterpreted her intentions. When I see her reluctance to leave the screen door, down the front steps, I am filled with guilt.
Then, other times the little, old woman in black becomes death itself. Shortly after encountering her, I fall violently ill for weeks, without any explanation. Almost like superstitious accounts of children possessed by demons, vomiting chicken feathers and black, unholy sludge from their cursed depths, all within a topsy-turvy landscape that goes from the hottest of summers to the coldest of winters in an impossibly short period of time.
While others may rely on their parents to fill in the memory gaps or to untwist and correct the tangled incongruities of their story with truths, I don't have that luxury. My mother's memory has long been washed out to sea. Most of her world is a shadow of a shadow. And, even though my father's memory is usually pretty good, he must have been working too hard during this time. During the writing of this piece I asked him what hospital I was initially admitted to before being transferred to another. He uncharacteristically can't remember. He also knows he was there for my spinal tap but has no solid memory of actually being there.
With all these memories drifting through my mind, like embers floating on whorls of hot air into the night, it's like trying to build a life out of smoke. Somedays the air is so choked with smog, the sun and the moon bleed impossible shades of red. And other days the rains come, knocking all the dirty particulate out of the air, back to earth to mix with the rich soil of imagination, a view of the past so clear that you can reach out and live it all over again.
Ron Gibson, Jr. has previously appeared in Cold Creek Review, L'Ephemere Review, Moonsick Magazine, Fiction Pool, Real Story UK, Easy Street Magazine, Rabble Lit, (b)oink, Mannequin Haus, Stockholm Review of Literature, Cheap Pop, New South Journal, Jellyfish Review, Whiskeypaper, Unbroken Journal, Crack the Spine, Gone Lawn, etc... forthcoming at Identity Theory, Midwestern Gothic, Occulum, Lost Balloon & Ellipsis Zine. @sirabsurd