FRIEND OF THE SICK by Nic Brown
GRIER WAS FIFTEEN AND ALMOST naked, standing in her underwear by the blinking light of the digital clock. It pulsed 4:17 AM, flashing red against a thin body just barely female, two mosquito bite breasts and no curves at all.
“Uncle Pete!” she called. “Uncle Pete!”
She could hear him crying—that was what had just woken her up—but it sounded like he was closed into a thick wall. Grier just stood there, blinking, cocking her ear, until finally she found him. He was outside, on the other side of the window, standing on the air-conditioning unit in the rain.
She slid the window open and rain blew in, cool across her stomach. The neighbors’ houses were all dark, suddenly outlined against a diffused flash of lightning which swelled dull through the low storm clouds.
“C’mere sweetie, c’mere,” she said, and Uncle Pete jumped onto the windowsill. Grier burrowed her knuckle into his ear and he started purring strongly, then stepped away for a moment before slashing his claws across her wrist.
“Sugar!” she said, and grabbed the cat by the skin of his neck.
She had seen the vet pick up a cat like this before, but had never done so herself and was somewhat amazed at the maneuver’s effect. Uncle Pete dangled limply from her outstretched hand, emitting a low, guttural moan.
What she did next was also something she had never done before. But she was home alone, there was a hurricane blowing into town, and she was scared—of the weather, of the solitude, and now also of the cat. She tossed Uncle Pete back into the rain and slid the window shut.
Uncle Pete was a white Maine Coon cat. When freshly brushed, he took up roughly the same amount of space as a fluffed down pillow. Grier cleaned his litter box, fed him, and let him sleep between her ankles at night, but the cat actually belonged to her best friend and neighbor, Fletcher Hayes.
In May, Fletcher had become sick. It started with a sore in her neck, and then, like lifting an old tire and finding the swarming insect life beneath, they discovered the rest. Lymphoma. Everyone asked Grier about it at school. She gained that strange sudden celebrity, the friend of the sick. Grier promised everyone that Fletcher’s chemotherapy was working, but all she really knew was that it had caused Fletcher to start having extreme allergic reactions to Uncle Pete. When she’d hold him, red blotches would immediately begin to rise on her face. Her nose would run. She’d start to wheeze and itch. Fletcher wouldn’t get rid of Uncle Pete, though. She adored him. So Grier had taken him in until Fletcher was well again.
Grier couldn’t fall back asleep. The house was too silent, too empty. She was too keenly aware of being inside of it alone. Her mother had gone to the coast that afternoon, towards the storm that was due to hit tonight, driving to Wilmington with Fletcher’s parents so they could board up the condo they co-owned. They’d left Fletcher in the care of her older brother Mike next door.
As the storm picked up, Grier lay awake, concerned about Uncle Pete. He was Fletcher’s constant object of affection. Even though he made her sick, Fletcher still insisted on seeing Uncle Pete at least daily for the kitty kiss. The kitty kiss is what Fletcher called it when she would blow softly at Uncle Pete, who would then lift his nose to her mouth, intently sniffing for as long as Fletcher could exhale, his nose bouncing lightly against her puckered lips.
Grier had almost decided she needed to go find him, to bring him back inside, when a soft knocking came from the window. She wrapped the bed sheet around her shoulders and slowly crossed the room. This time, it wasn’t Uncle Pete. It was Fletcher’s brother Mike. He was eighteen, wore a black trench coat, and his hair, usually a rigid six-inch red mohawk, now hung limp and wet across his scalp. Grier’s heart raced as she opened the window.
“You up?” Mike said.
“I saw your light on.”
“Uncle Pete freaked out. Look.”
Grier’s wrist had three large gashes across it. They were still bleeding. Mike gently held her arm, turning it in the light.
“Where is he?” Mike said.
In the road, a streetlamp lit the rain falling diagonally, tree limbs bent and swaying.
“I tried to get him in through the window,” she said. “But he was freaking out.”
Mike kept looking outside.
“We have to go get him,” he said.
Two days after her first round of chemo, Fletcher admitted to Grier in tears that her pubic hair had collected in her underwear and fallen out upon the bathroom floor. That night Grier slept over. Fletcher fell asleep early and Grier stayed up with Mike, running lines from Guys and Dolls, the play they were both performing with the Barn Dinner Theater.
The main reason Grier had even auditioned was because she knew Mike would be in it. He acted in everything the Theater did. Grier had never acted in anything before, but she had had a crush on Mike since she was five years old and thought this was finally her chance to spend time with him. Fletcher had an uncontrollable jealousy about any of her friends interacting with Mike—less an attachment to Mike than to her friends, it seemed. He was a freak. A theater nerd with a mohawk. Fletcher did everything she could to distance herself from him. Once, during a party, she found Mike making out with one of her swim team teammates—short, blond, cute Ashley Aikens—and then proceeded to tip the gasoline out of the neighbor’s lawnmower and onto Mike’s skateboard, then light it on fire in the front yard.
That night, in the kitchen with Fletcher asleep down the hall, neither of them could remember their lines. After a while Mike said, “You want to just role play?”
“OK,” Grier said.
Mike then closed his eyes and wiped a hand slowly down his face. This was a technique their director, Ms. Astor, had taught them to cleanse themselves of the real world, to enter the realm of acting. Once Mike was clean, he said, “I’m gonna show you what they do at the doctor. It’s like this. They go I’m going to have to inspect your glands. Turn your head to the side.”
He inspected Grier’s neck.
“How does it look?” she said.
“Bad. Real bad. Let me see your retina.”
She turned and Mike brought his face so close to hers that she could feel his breath. She wondered if this was what the kitty kiss was like, if this was the way Uncle Pete felt when Fletcher put her face near his, because if so, then it all made sense to Grier, because she wanted Mike to stay there, breathing on her face forever.
Grier stayed in the guest room that night because she was afraid of waking Fletcher. At some point after Grier had fallen asleep, Mike came into the room. She woke up when he climbed onto the mattress. Neither spoke as he put his arms around her. They just clung to each other as if, if either let go, the other might fall off the bed.
Outside, Grier’s terrycloth robe quickly grew heavy with the rain. Inland North Carolina always got weather like this, unraveling hurricanes dropping huge amounts of rain as they blew in across the Piedmont. Grier and Mike crossed into Mankin Park, the open plot across the street from their houses, where a small creek ran. The water was just starting to overflow the creek’s banks, rising up a small bridge that had red lines painted onto one of its supports, marking the flood crests of years past. Five feet in 1973, six and a half in ’82. There were more, some washing off, dozens up and down the concrete. Above ’82 someone had painted WHIRLIES.
They walked the park for several minutes, looking up into the swaying dark branches, rain dripping into their eyes, slipping on wet grass, kneeling and calling Uncle Pete’s name into bushes, before finally coming to a stop on the bridge.
“This is pointless,” Mike said, and wrapped his warm hand around Grier’s. It was thrilling, this casual affection unhidden. She imagined them holding hands at school, at the mall. On the front steps. It could never happen, though. Not if there was a chance Fletcher would find out. She let herself imagine, just for a moment, what a world without Fletcher would be like, what new freedoms she would have. She held on to Mike and looked at the water rising dark and glimmering below. She had an urge to dive in and swim through what was usually air. She felt invincible. She smiled at Mike beside her and he wiped his hand down his face. Then he held his hand before his mouth as if he were holding a microphone and said, “I am Walter Teague with your First Alert Forecast! And I’m here live in Mankin Park tonight as Hurricane Hugo moves into Lystra. Here’s a local woman. Ma’am, were you prepared for this storm?”
He held the invisible microphone to Grier.
Grier froze. Mike’s hand was so close to her face, almost touching her nose. She could see dirt under his thumbnail, could smell the mud on his hand. She could think of nothing to say. She just stood there and smelled his fingers. This was when she saw the young woman like a ghost standing on the end of the bridge under the streetlamp in a large wool hat, holding an umbrella that glowed red against the darkness. It was Fletcher. She looked around, seeming removed and confused.
“Uncle Pete came to my window,” Grier said.
“You shouldn’t be out in this,” Mike said.
“It’s Uncle Pete shouldn’t be out in this,” Fletcher said.
“We’ll find him.”
She kept looking around, squinting into the darkness, before finally just looking at Grier.
“What are you guys doing?”
“We’re looking for Uncle Pete,” Grier said.
“He can’t be out in this,” Fletcher said. “He really, just. He can’t . . .”
She then moved slowly back into the darkness, almost sleepwalking. Moments later, a thin sliver of light appeared in her front doorway across the lawn, profiling her body as it slid back inside.
“Motherfucker,” Mike said.
“I have to go talk to her,” Grier said.
“No you don’t.”
“Yes I do,” Grier said, and rushed across the road, through the soggy lawn to Fletcher’s back door. She stepped into the kitchen, where the refrigerator held a magnetically arranged display of get-well cards. Every second grader at Preston Elementary had made one for Fletcher after the student body president at their high school organized the effort. It was a surprise and he delivered the box of cards one afternoon accompanied by a few of the children. Grier was with her when they arrived and Fletcher had been mortified. Beside that refrigerator was the table where Grier had first role played with Mike. Fletcher’s house was filled with memories like this. There was the stereo that, a few summers earlier, Grier and Fletcher had used to continually play a cassette of the rap group Whodini. They memorized the lyrics and choreographed dances, and then, in September of that year, when Grier’s parents divorced and her father left, Fletcher sat Grier down at the that table, pressed play on the box, and rapped along to the Whodini song, “Friends.” Afterwards, she said, “See. That’s what we are. Friends.”
She walked down the hallway, past the guest room where Mike had held her, past the bathroom where Fletcher’s pubic hair had spilled out upon the floor, and stopped in the doorway of Fletcher’s bedroom.
Fletcher lay on her mattress. Her scalp was smooth and soft, as if a thin layer of uncooked dough had been spread across it.
“Hey,” Grier said.
“Did you find him?”
“Not yet,” Grier said. Fletcher rolled over and looked silently at the ceiling. “Fletcher?”
“I just don’t feel very good.” Grier stepped closer. Fletcher looked tired, old and shrunken. She shut her eyes and said, “Can you get Mike?”
Grier found Mike in the kitchen. By the time they returned to her bedroom, Grier was positive Fletcher was dead. It made perfect sense, she thought. This is what cancer does.
But then Mike said, “When she’s out like this, she doesn’t get up for, like ever. It’s because of the drugs and stuff. She takes all these drugs.”
He spoke at full volume and Fletcher didn’t stir. Then he took Grier’s hand again and led her to his bedroom. Only as a girl had she been in Mike’s room before, marveling at his mess, looking at his official boy items—his skateboard, his soccer ball when he had been younger, his sneakers, his tapes. He put his arms around her and she nestled her face into his neck, smelling the cherry Jell-O in his hair. Every morning he heated a small bowl of it in the microwave, then rubbed the liquefied gelatin into his hair to keep the mohawk standing. Grier thought it smelled great. Mike pushed her head back and started to kiss her. She kissed back and they fell onto the bed.
“It’s OK,” he said. “She’s not going to wake up.”
Grier sat up, straddling him, and he grinned up at her through the darkness. She felt suddenly rash and safe, and wiped a hand down Mike’s face, from forehead to chin, then did the same to herself. They were clean, ready for escape.
“It’s nice to meet you, Walter Teague,” she said.
“Who are you?”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a doctor.”
“A heart doctor.”
“How is it?”
Grier put her head against his damp chest. “It’s beating.”
“Do I sound healthy?”
“I don’t know.”
It seemed contact was some necessary medicine. They grabbed at each other desperately, licking each other’s mouths and faces. Her wet robe fell to the floor with a splat. He took his clothes off in only a few rapid motions. They touched each other everywhere. Grier lay with one leg swung over Mike’s, listening to his slow, deep breathing. It was the longest she had ever spent touching a boy’s body. The wind buzzing through the low pine branches outside was loud enough that she did not hear Fletcher step into the doorway, only saw her head when it appeared, alien and thin against the dim hall light.
“Mike,” Fletcher said. “I’m sick.”
Mike flinched and turned on the bedside lamp. Grier clenched her eyes against the sudden light, but when she opened them again, it seemed Fletcher hadn’t even noticed that she was there. She was simply leaning against the doorframe, covering her face with her hands. A thin strand of saliva dangled from between her wrists.
Mike turned the light off as he rushed into the bathroom. Grier lay silently in the darkness.
“Can you just get me a glass of water?” Fletcher finally said, so faintly that there was no way Mike could have heard.
Grier said nothing.
“I’m just so thirsty,” Fletcher whispered. “Please, Grier.”
“Oh! OK, yeah.”
She pulled on Mike’s T-shirt and rushed to the kitchen, passing Fletcher on the way, rubbing against her in the doorway. When she returned, Fletcher was sitting on the floor, her back against the doorjamb. Pepto-Bismol was spilled across her T-shirt. It was such a bright pink. It seemed the color of sickness.
“If I die, you guys will have each other,” Fletcher said.
“What are you talking about?” Mike said.
“I’m talking about this.”
“Stop saying that.”
Then she burped up the rest of her Pepto Bismal and it ran pink down her chin and onto her ankles. Mike helped her down the hall to her room.
Grier sat on the edge of Mike’s bed, waiting, looking at his posters. The Violent Femmes. Christian Hasoi. The Connells. Lance Mountain. She stepped into the hallway and listened but heard nothing. She didn’t know if she should stay or go. After several minutes, she put on her wet robe and walked outside.
It was just barely daylight and the area of yard between the two houses was littered with small branches. The rain was even stronger, more steady, and the wind was beginning to gust. There were no insects, usually a chorus at this hour. It was all just steady rain, thudding into the grass and washing through the leaves. In the park the water had risen over the first floodmarker on the bridge and now lapped the concrete just below ’82.
The lights in Fletcher’s bedroom cast a pale parallelogram onto the grass outside and Grier could see Mike standing in the room near the glass. She thought that he was waving and she waved back, but then realized he was only unfolding a large towel and for a moment she let her hand dangle in mid-air, as if something delicate, like a brittle marionette, were hanging from her fingertips.
This was when the lights shut off in Fletcher’s bedroom. Grier looked around. The streetlamp was out, the light over her back door was dark. The whirring of the air conditioning unit ground to a halt. It wasn’t uncommon for the electricity to fail in Lystra, the result of too many old trees and thunderstorms, but it startled her and she rushed back to her own house.
Inside, she took off her cold robe and showered in the dark bathroom in an attempt to warm herself up. The shower seemed almost exotic in the darkness and she tried to relax. She inhaled deep lungfuls of steam. Afterwards, as she dressed, she looked outside as a trashcan rolled into the lawn and what seemed to be a candle floated through the darkness in Mike’s kitchen.
In the back hallway, the door was banging in the wind. Its top hinge was broken. A one point Grier’s father had fixed it with a broken nail, but now it had broken completely and often kept the door from closing all the way. She started towards it when she heard Uncle Pete meow. She found him at her feet, soaked, looking half of his size. She bent down and he strained his neck towards her, trying to reach her face. It was clear what he wanted. The kitty kiss. She picked him up instead, his claws digging into her flesh. He cried and tried to pull away, but she held him tightly and rushed into the rain.
The trashcan rolled away from her on a new gust of wind, a plastic bag lifting out of it on the draft, floating in a spiral into the low branch of a dogwood. The water in the park had obliterated any suggestion of the actual creek from which it came and now spread thin across the grass, lapping at iron bench legs and tree trunks and inching even closer to WHIRLIES on the bridge.
She approached Mike’s back door and through the small window saw the candle now burning on the kitchen table. When she swung the door open, though, she found Fletcher, not Mike. A mug of something steaming sat on the table before her and she looked like a zombie, her eyes sunken in, the skin puffy and dark around them.
Grier didn’t say anything, just set Uncle Pete on the kitchen table. As Uncle Pete rushed across it, Fletcher pursed her lips and closed her eyes. When he reached her, they began the kitty kiss. Uncle Pete stood frozen except for his tail, which continued to whip back and forth. Grier watched, unbelieving, as it passed in and out of the small candle flame. It seemed too impossible, too ridiculous to be true as the very tip suddenly blossomed into flame. Fletcher’s eyes were still closed, though, and Uncle Pete seemed oblivious, his purring audible even from a few feet away. The flame burnt brightly for an instant but then, upon encountering the dense wet fur a bit further up, faded and died. The whole event lasted no more than three seconds.
In the dim candlelight, hives were already appearing on Fletcher’s scalp like mysterious continents emerging on a map. A small bulb of mucous emerged from a nostril and began to creep down her upper lip. But still she continued to exhale. When Fletcher finally took in a new breath, Grier knew she was going to smell the thick, foul stench of burnt cat hair. But for now, Fletcher looked elated, high, and not even Uncle Pete had noticed himself on fire, too intent on getting some good love from whoever would give it.
Copyright © 2009 by Nic Brown from Floodmarkers. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.
NIC BROWN lives with his wife and daughter in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His first book, Floodmarkers, was published in July, 2009, and was selected as an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times Book Review. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Harvard Review, Glimmer Train, Epoch, The South Carolina Review, and Time Out Amsterdam. He is a graduate of Columbia University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.