Carl walked into his bedroom wondering if his wife would
be able to walk today. Sometimes she could, sometimes not. She stirred
in bed. Moved an arm. Wince. Moved a leg. Wince.
Unable to even turn her head, Melinda rolled her eyes in his
"Help me up."
He went to the bedside and gently slipped his arms around her. "Ready?"
"Uh-huh." She took a few deep breaths like one who will dive into ice water.
He counted, "One, two, three, lift."
She stifled a groan. Pain seized her from her neck to her knees like a live wire. He held her upright a moment until the first waves ebbed. A small hungry cry drifted into the bedroom. "Baby's awake," she said between panting breaths.
"I'll get Lucy while you take a shower," he said, bending to move a pile of clothes out of the path between bed and bathroom. "Can you get in okay by yourself?"
"Sure, no problem."
He left. The first steps were the worst, as always. She imagined piranhas biting her hips and knees when she walked. Move. Bite. Move. Bite. She let her clothes fall on the floor and stepped into the shower, the hot water massaging and warming her cramped muscles.
Lucy was two months old when Melinda began having some pain in her right shoulder blade when she moved certain ways. Her doctor, Dr. Sooner, had diagnosed it as a pulled muscle, which sounded reasonable at the time. Then this "pulled muscle" spread throughout her body, so she went back.
"Here's what we're looking at," Sooner told her. "The blood tests and X-rays don't indicate a problem, but your symptoms are real--pain, fatigue, insomnia. It's fibromyalgia."
"What is it? Fibro...?"
"Fibro-my-algia. FM for short. It's a non-malignant, chronic pain syndrome. There isn't a specific test for it yet, so we diagnose it by eliminating what it is not."
"You sound like Sherlock Holmes," Melinda observed.
He scribbled on his pad and ripped off a page, handing it to her. "This is a prescription for stronger muscle relaxers and pain medication. I want to see you again in a couple weeks."
"Thanks. I'm glad you caught the culprit, sooner, rather than Later."
Humor was in the beginning when she had thought the pain would go away in a few days like a bad bruise. After a couple of weeks, though, she'd thought of it more like having a broken leg that would take a while longer to mend. When months went by, she concluded it was more like having a leg amputated.
They had had to make household changes. He cooked supper and did some housework, and the next door neighbor watched the baby on the days when she couldn't lift her. That hurt more than the fibromyalgia. Melinda wasn't thirty yet and she felt old and drained of usefulness. She turned her face into the jets of water to wash the tears away.
After walking the baby next door, Carl settled her into the living room. He left some crackers, a drink, her pills, and the t.v. controller on the table beside her. He adjusted the recliner to a comfortable angle under her verbal directions.
"I'll come back at lunch time." He leaned over and smacked the top of her head. "Gotta go. I'm fifteen minutes late already."
Melinda looked at him calmly, with a slight smile. "Good-bye, Carl. I love you."
"Love you, too, hon," he replied, heading out the door.
My poor man, she thought. He deserves better than this. So does Lucy. She reflected on her own childhood full of aunts, grandmothers, eventually a stepmother, but no mother.
"I did okay without her," she whispered to herself.
Her glance drifted around the living room. "The Art Gallery," they called it. Her paintings filled the room with flowers, beaches peopled and lonely, orchards in autumn, mothers with babies and children. An unfinished work stood on the easel by the window, Carl and Melinda together holding their tiny, sleeping daughter. He and the baby were mostly finished, but Melinda's place was still an empty space with a few sketch lines. She had sat down a few times to work on it, but after ten minutes her neck and shoulders cramped, so she'd had to give up on painting altogether.
She opened both bottles of medicine and hoped it would be enough. She emptied one, gulped some water, then the other, and lay back in her chair. Like tubing down a river, Melinda drifted into sleep. She felt detached, floating between this world and the next. A light shined in the darkness more dazzling than ten thousand butterflies of every hue in one place, purer than the morning sun. Behind her, her body lay in the recliner, discarded like a locust shell.
She was still attached to it by a thin silver line. The merest effort of her will would snap it, and she'd be free forever.
Melinda looked ahead to where the light was brightest and saw that she wasn't alone. She wasn't afraid. After all, how could anything bad happen in this place? As the other one approached, Melinda had a gut feeling of familiarity. When she stopped in front of her she knew. They looked so much alike that they might have been sisters.
"Melinda, my child."
She fell into her mother's arms. After a long while savoring this reunion, they stood apart.
"You're early," her mother said.
"I know. I'm sorry. I just couldn't take the pain anymore, not knowing when or if it would end. At least I know now what you went through. I can't be angry at you anymore."
She nodded at her.
Melinda paused in uncertainty.
"Um, I, um, I would be going with you? I mean, I did take the pills, and I thought that . . ."
"Don't worry about that. I was forgiven, too, or else I wouldn't be here."
Melinda sighed in relief, and whatever tension she still had melted away. She looked back one more time to say good-bye to her former life. What she saw happening to her body riveted her attention to it in fascination and disgust.
It was osmosis. From her neck to her knees things were emerging through her skin without tearing it. Slender tendrils and feelers swayed and trembled. Arching against her skin, the feelers pulled the rest of each creature from the red meat. They were all mouth like so many animal traps yawning and snapping in the air.
"They're pain eaters," explained her mother, "parasites invisible in the physical realm that live off of the pain they cause. Since you're not there to feel your pain, they're leaving your body."
Melinda shuddered and wrinkled her nose as if she smelled them. She turned toward her mother.
"I'm ready. Let's go."
"Okay. Follow me."
They flew towards the light. The silver cord stretched thinner and thinner.
"Too bad about your art."
That caught her off guard. "Yeah, well, there are other painters."
"That's true," agreed her mother.
A few moments later the older woman said, "Too bad about Lucy."
"Carl can take care of her, and there are friends to help."
"That isn't what I meant."
The two women stopped.
The last pain eater had left her body, but they didn't shrivel and die. Tentacles wormed and writhed, and when they touched another's snaking limb, the two twisted and pulled together. They were even uglier united because now there was one bigger creature with dozens of mouths (almost human looking!) opening and closing. A few larger limbs merged to lift and sway in the air.
"What's it doing?" she asked. She was filled with loathing for the thing. To think that it had invaded her body and fed off of her!
"It's waiting for the baby to come home," her mother stated flatly. Melinda stared at her in shock. The woman looked away, seeing another time and place. "It'll wait for Lucy. It will lie dormant in her, maybe for years, until something triggers it, some illness or trauma, like having a baby."
"No! We've got to do something, anything! I can't let that thing have my baby!" Her fists squeezed and opened repeatedly.
"You still have the choice." She gestured toward the lifeline still connecting her daughter's spirit to her body. It was hair thin.
"I can't guarantee what would happen if you went back. It might go away to look for another victim and not bother you again, or it might not."
Melinda began to cry. Her mother folded her arms around her. How many times had she seen others comforting her child in her place?
"Mom, what can we do?"
"Fight it. It can be done, though it won't be easy. Others suffer the same thing, and they learn to manage, but only a very few know the real cause of their pain. Look for them and they will help."
They fell silent for some time. They both knew what she would do, but it wasn't enough for her daughter to be resigned to it. She wanted to give her something more to take back. The words of an ancient love song came to mind.
"Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it." They were just words spoken from parent to child, but in that place between worlds they seemed tangible as stones and powerful as fire. They burned their way into her heart and soul in the most delicious way. They leapt like dancing flames in her mind, lifting her with them.
"Farewell, Mother," she whispered, her look one of gratitude and love.
"Let's not say 'farewell'. Rather, until we meet again."
Holding on to the sight of her mother in the light, Melinda readied herself like a cliff diver and plunged back to earth.
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