Horror / A pottery studio / A brain tumor / 991w
David and Isobel sat with the dregs of tea and, finally, an understanding between them. David always received these clients in his studio at McClark Elementary, to familiarize them with where the procedure would take place. He found that it relaxed them, to be there with the chalky smell of clay, the shelves of jumbled sculpting tools, and the 4th grade’s lopsided bowls along the windowsills.
Isobel, for her part, felt far from tranquil. But that was her reality now. It was a dismal series of affairs that had led her to David Angler’s studio in the third-to-last month of her life: a silver splash across her vision, a visit to the doctor, and a diagnosis that left her weeping on her sofa. Then, a vague suggestion by a pharmacist that a local man, good with his hands, had everything but the degree and charged a third of the hospital’s price, no insurance required.
Isobel stared at the potter. The skin of his face was thickened by scar tissue, from adolescent acne. He had a forelock of red hair that made him look almost boyish. Why did he do what he did? Was he an altruistic soul? Or had he cornered the market on the desperate? She had wanted to ask him even more questions, about the technicality that ended his residency, about the mystery anesthetics in their shiny green canisters – but in the past two months she had become afraid of questions, and the answers that followed. Better not to ask. Better just to hope.
“I’ll see you here in two weeks,” David said as he led her to the door. “I’ll just get everything ready.”
“Thank you,” she said softly.
“Of course. I’m glad you came to talk to me.”
Isobel tended her violets and cooked for her teenage daughters. She sorted mail, texted her ex-husband, and did as much shopping as she could. And she cancelled an upcoming appointment with her oncologist, hanging up on the bewildered receptionist just after.
She was just so tired all the time, now. The fatigue owned her.
David inspected his fifth graders’ lumpy cups and plates, making notes for his write-ups. He spun a commissioned vase, shaving off curls of white clay with the blunt end of a steel scoop. He heated up the kiln and fired a set of coasters he’d glazed blood red and ivory. And he contemplated how, with Isobel, he might make up his costs. Most of his patients were appendectomies, or hernias, or some other abdominal concern. It was easy enough to snip out more valuable flesh: a kidney, a wedge of liver. Skin and sutures and morphine haze did a fine job of hiding the tax, and his usual buyers asked no questions, left no trail. But Isobel’s tumor limited his options.
He considered this as he worked another vase, a mate for the first, on his wheel. With thumbs and centrifugal force, he shaped a neck, a lip. Steady hands. No sudden movements, no twitches. His stint in neurosurgery had been brief but productive.
“I’ll miss you, mom,” Lila said to Isobel, hugging her round the middle. “See you when you get back.”
“Say hi to Aunt Mimi,” said Claudia, the oldest, kissing Isobel’s cheek.
“See you in a week, loves,” Isobel said. The normalcy came so easily to her now. She did not think she would ever really feel normal again, but anyone could act. She had started acting the moment her children had asked about her cancer and when she would be better. She was nervous now, painfully so, but schooled her expression into warmth.
David settled the facemask over her nose and mouth, and then began to shave her head. Her breathing settled into a slow rhythm just as he was daubing iodine over the pale scalp. The monitors – breathing and heart rate – were off, because the beeping and clicking distracted him. He would know if her heart stopped, if her breathing labored.
The exhilaration swept deliciously through him as the drill pierced bone. She lay unmoving. He would have liked an endoscope, but given his situation, it would have to be the conventional method. No assistants, no one in his way.
He laid her open.
The tumor was a gray mass, gelatinous and foreign. Into it he slipped his instruments, those of his true craft. The excision took hours. With every sliver that came away, his focus sharpened, his satisfaction deepened. He’d never lose his edge.
When it had all been removed, he allowed himself a final self-congratulatory breath. He was always obliged to appreciate his own expertise, but fortunately, his appreciation sufficed. But there was still the matter of the fee.
When Isobel’s mind swam into a brackish consciousness, her head was nothing but a locus of pain. There was a throbbing, a thumping; it was the pedal of the potter’s wheel, somewhere off to the right. The rhythm of it seemed to dislodge bile in her throat.
She must have moved, or groaned, because the thumping stopped and David’s footsteps approached. “How do you feel? You’ve been recovering for fourteen hours.”
She tried to open her eyes. “I can’t see yet.” Her voice was crusty and raw.
He was silent for just a moment. And then he said, “Isobel, do you remember what I told you about the location of your tumor?”
She didn’t remember him saying anything about the location. He shouldn’t be asking questions. She didn’t have answers. “No.”
“With its position, I had to make a difficult decision. The cancer was aggressive, and looking to grow.”
Isobel was frantically working the muscles, but her eyes didn’t respond. Nothing responded. She lifted a tremulous hand and felt a stiff bandage across her face. Then she screamed, and kept screaming.
“I’m so sorry.” A hand, crusty with clay, pressed into hers. “But if you think about it, I think you’ll agree, the sacrifice was warranted. Life is priceless.”
Why do I like writing creepy things so much. It doesn’t really jibe with my idea of my own personality, but hey. I may just embrace it. Recommendations on good horror, ghost, and generally creepy stories would be much appreciated! I do think this is the first story in which I’ve successfully achieved a distant third person point-of-view. There are probably some unbelievable elements (open brain surgery in a pottery studio?).
Isobel I intended to paint as innocent, and naive. But desperate and scared, as well, and willing to do incredibly dangerous things in order to try to be there for her family. David is…what he is. Proud of himself.
This is way better suspense than my last attempt at suspense.