I hear Stephanie and our teenage daughter, Kimberly, shouting at each other. After a door-slam quakes the walls, I wait a few minutes for the waves that must be frothing in my wife to calm. As I’m heading downstairs, I hear Stephanie scream.
“Dennis, do something,” my wife says, pointing to a spider in the kitchen. That makes no sense. I’ve seen Stephanie cup spiders and bugs in her hands and carry them outside many times.
I lead Stephanie into the living room. Our Yorkie runs to us. My wife jumps behind me. Her condition deteriorates the rest of the evening. The refrigerator, the couch and a floor lamp all terrify her.
“Ah, yes, Ms. Mallon,” Dr. Tocker says, turning away from his computer. Stephanie squawks back her chair and points at his chest.
“Doctor,” I say, “I think you need put your stethoscope away.”
Dr. Tocker removes the instrument and swings his monitor toward us, revealing an image of Stephanie’s brain scan. “We used to think this structure that snakes through the right hemisphere like a stretched-out neck was part of the cerebrum. Now we know it’s a discrete lobe — the fortitudous modiglianous, the long neck of courage. Yours, Ms. Mallon, is quite enlarged. Ah, yes. Now before you jump to the conclusion that —”
I sneak a peek at my phone and find a text from Colleen. A big client has confirmed a meeting in Barcelona.
“— this is a terminal brain disease,”
Stephanie has a terminal brain disease?
“Let me assure you the condition is treatable.”
Dr. Tocker explains that the syndrome is becoming more common due to the turbulent times and that folks with additional stressors in their personal lives are especially susceptible.
“We have a teenager daughter,” Stephanie says. “And … other issues.”
“Ah, yes. Many people escape into their jobs, activities, booze, pills … But some folks face reality head on and try to make things better.”
“That’s me,” Stephanie says. “I’d like to think so anyway.”
“My wife has a lot of causes.”
“Ah, yes. Extra stress can inflame the courage lobe, reducing its efficacy.”
Dr. Tocker describes a mental exercise to restore the lobe. “Write down things you’re afraid of and then swear at them. Swearing releases feel-good endorphins you’ll associate with your fears. Plus, it’s a good way to show the fuckers who’s boss.” He chuckles. “Nobody thinks that’s funny but me … After you’ve cursed your fear, say you forgive it. Forgiveness is cathartic. Do this every day, and you’ll be better than ever.”
Dr. Tocker stands, wishes Stephanie good luck and holds out his hand.
I text Colleen and tell her to book flights and a hotel for two in Barcelona.
The next morning when my ride to the airport arrives, Stephanie’s siting on the couch wearing blindfolds. “Honey, I’m going.”
She ignores me.
“You’ll be OK. You’ve got your mental game. And your sister can come over if the toaster freaks you out.”
Stephanie swivels her head away from me. Geez, try to lighten the mood.
I call a couple times from Spain and learn from Kimberly that Stephanie’s doing her fuck you / forgive you exercises religiously.
When I get home Friday evening, I find my wife cross-legged on the floor, writing in a notepad. Progress — an ink pen that doesn’t horrify her. “I’ll change clothes and keep you company. Where’s Kimberly?”
“She texted saying she’ll be home in awhile.”
When I get back downstairs, I set up shop on the sofa with my laptop.
Stephanie scribbles and murmurs — asshole, dumb shit or some such, always followed by forgive.
After a bit, Kimberly walks in. I notice she’s limping. “What’s wrong?” She turns toward me and starts to say something as my phone dings. A text from Colleen. “One second, Sweetie.”
Kimberly heads upstairs.
I dismiss Colleen with a heart response. “Kimberly, come back.”
“Leave me alone.”
Stephanie looks up from her notepad. “Dennis, you are one son of a bitch.”
I wait. “Well?”
“Aren’t you supposed to say you forgive me?”
Stephanie goes upstairs. “You shouldn’t ignore doctor’s orders,” I yell. I’ll patch things up later. For now she needs to get to the bottom of what’s going on with Kimberly.
A while later, I find our bedroom door locked so I crash in the spare room.
I leave for the office before dawn to avoid a scene. Plus it’ll be a nice gesture if I make coffee for Colleen for a change.
When I get home after a long day, I find the locked-door contagion has spread from the bedroom to every entry in the house. My clothes are piled in the garage. On top of the mound is the toaster, taped to it a two-word note: It worked.
David Henson and his wife have lived in Belgium and Hong Kong over the years and now reside in Peoria, Illinois. His work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net and has appeared or is upcoming in various journals including Pithead Chapel, Briefly Write, Literally Stories, The Metaworker and Gone Lawn. His website is http://writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.