by Nate Ragolia
The ceiling comprises sixty-four square tiles. Each tile has two-hundred and fifty-four dimples, except for the eight tiles that are occupied by light fixtures and that venting cowl that looks like a metal flower. Where the ceiling meets the walls, on the three sides I can see, there is a bead of wood, painted calming blue, that accents the room like a fancy cake. I don’t know if the walls are decorated–unable to move my head–but my memory of hospitals leads me to believe there would be a television on one wall flanked by inexpensive, mass-produced landscape paintings. Hopefully, if there are paintings, they are tasteful and well-composed, and none of that hideous Theodore Finley shit.
Finley had died a few years earlier, drugs and pills, after his wife filed for divorce. He was famous among his audience, a well-branded man, with calendars and classes and all the selling out an artist can accommodate. Was the real him reflected in his paintings? Did that mean that one of his paintings, perhaps on my hospital room wall right now, was a portal by which his essence viewed my own?
I tap the call button for a nurse. She said that this could happen as a side-effect of the medication. She called it Finleymania. She said the early signs were a sudden awareness and interest in the painter, followed by the belief that each individual image contained its own universe, and eventually escalating to a sense that contact is happening with the man himself. These manifestations were colloquially called “Teddysits,” a term that sounds almost cute until the nurse explains that the associated fugue state usually results in death.
But this is all normal.
It’s all part of the procedure.
I’ll be whole soon. I’ll be able to move again. Like the accident never happened. Like I was never pulverized against the rocks.
It’s all part of the procedure.
She’s coming down the hall now, and I can hear her footfalls on the linoleum floor. She’s carrying another dose of Osinum, in a thin needle that she’ll jab into my meaty belly and all these thoughts about the painter will slip away, buried deep beneath everything else I want to do when I finally get out of here.
There’s a knock knock at the door. A courtesy knock. The nurse knows I’m in here. Where else would I be? I’m not going to make a break for it. Nurse B________ nudges the door open. Light splashes across the ceiling from the hallway. Its hinges creak like a whisper. B________’s shoes squeak on the floor and she clomps back a step in a nervous stumble.
“Sorry, Mr. R________,” she says. “I hate that noise.”
I do my best approximation of nodding.
“You rang?” she says, in a comedically not-deep Lurch voice.
“Pntr!” I grumble.
She understands right away. She steps over me, and my nostrils fill with the delicate scent of vanilla. Why is it that the infirm are always closest to physical temptation? B________’s scrubs billow out over me, and the aura of her breasts is so intense that I think for a moment that I feel them resting on my doughy chest. She adjusts my pillow and folds down the blanket. Then out comes the needle.
“Remember what I said,” she says. “The instant you start thinking about those paintings you call me. No close calls.”
She holds the needle over me.
“Now, this’ll sting, but in a second you won’t think about any of it again.”
The needle slips in, and I think it might go right through me. It could, really. Nothing to stop it. I feel the liquid Osinum surge through me like electricity darting from neuron to neuron. And then in a quick flash I can’t even remember what painting I was thinking about.
B________ sets the needle aside on a cart outside my vision and touches the mass of my forehead. Her nails are nice. Clean, manicured. Her hands look soft, but strong. She’d probably give good hand.
“Okay, Mr. R________, that’s it,” she says, stepping away toward the door. “Everything looks good. Your vitals are sharp. You’re lucky to have walked away from an accident like that one. Sorry, I shouldn’t have said walked. It’s an expression, though, you understand. You are lucky though. The ocean doesn’t usually forgive people so easily. Of course, modern medicine makes a lot possible, and in time you’ll be right as rain. The Osinum will take about twenty minutes to cycle in, and you should start to feel some real results this time, since it’s dose number six.”
I want to mumble something about her making my recovery all the better, but I can’t find the words. Nurse B________ smiles, pats the side of my hospital bed, and disappears from sight, leaving only the creak of the door, and the latch as evidence of her complete departure.
Hours must pass because the dim tan curtains visible from the corner of my right eye are now just black darkness. I close my eyes and inhale deeply.
Some light peers in through my eyelids. It’s the reason I realize I’m no longer asleep. I blink my eyes open and right there on the ceiling is some distant island alcove, a hidden bay, with a ship approaching, all under the white, creamy glow of the moon. It’s one of those motel paintings… one of those images from a calendar.
Panic overcomes me as I stare transfixed into the light. It’s happening again, and it has never been like this. I begin to wonder how Finley brings the light to life. So nuanced, so energetic. And yet so still. I feel as though I’m falling up, toward the painting. This isn’t right.
I mash the call button and hear the chime. Now, I just have to wait for those footfalls, and that scent of vanilla. Meanwhile, there’s a figure on the ship in the painting that I shouldn’t be seeing, and it’s moving toward the bow, waving tiny arms that perfectly reflect the milky moonlight.
The figure dives off the front of the ship, splashes into the water and then emerges on the shore, in the foreground, arms up, still waving. At me. And then with superhuman speed, the figure strides up the beach, toward me, until it reaches the canvas surface of the painting.
“I’m Theodore Finley, and I’d like to talk to you today about secrets of my creativity,” the figure says.
It leans in close, and while it has no discernible characteristics like a nose, mouth, or eyes, the figure is wearing one of those over ear microphones that self-help gurus and convention speakers wear.
“The biggest secret is that there are no secrets,” the figure continues. “There’s only light. Once you start seeing the world for all its light, and nothing else, you really understand how to make art.”
I begin to appreciate the boring composition of Finley’s images, instead seeing the virtue of the light in them. His voice is soothing, and his high-octane self-assurance is infectious. I wonder if I’m a painter, too, and if not, why not. I keep mashing the call button. My heart races, nearly leaping around inside of me. Nurse B________ will arrive soon. She has to.
“The only thing is,” the figure says. “The only thing is that you have to give yourself over to the light. Once you let go, the light will paint itself for you.”
Then the figure extends its hand to me.
“Come with me,” it says.
Even if I could reach out to it, I wouldn’t, but then somehow my hand is fluttering up toward the figure’s. My heart’s racing gives way to pain and I can’t scream, so I gurgle something that sounds hideous to my ears, but quickly washes away beneath the figure’s persistence.
“Come with me,” it says again.
I can’t retract my hand, and it’s almost touching the figure’s hand, and I feel like my brain is liquefying, and…
Clap clap clap.
The blade of light cuts across my ceiling.
“Oh no!” Nurse B________ screams.
She runs up to the headboard of my bed and hits the emergency button. I hear a faint alarm sounding, but it’s cloaked in the figure’s soothing tones.
“Come with me.”
More footsteps, running now.
“I don’t know what’s gone wrong,” Nurse B________ says. “I just administered the sixth dose three hours ago. He shouldn’t be convulsing like this. Is that the best way to describe it? Convulsing? It’s like a lava lamp. Undulating?”
“I think convulsing remains accurate, Nurse. Undulating lacks the requisite medical implication. The protocols changed last week,” someone says. “We sent a memo. For a man of Mr. R________’s height and weight, it’s now seven doses of Osinum.”
As if the figure weren’t there at all, the Doctor leans over me, smelling of aftershave and rye bread. She shines a penlight in my eyes, and looks me up and down.
“Mr. R________, if you can understand me please blink three times,” the Doctor says.
I blink three times.
“You’re in the throes of an episode of Finleymania brought on by your Osinum dose, but we’re here and we’re going to help you. If you understand blink twice.”
I blink twice.
“Good,” the Doctor says. “Now, whatever you do, do not take the hand of any figure you might be seeing. That could result in a very bad thing.”
Could? A very bad thing? I have no way to tell the Doctor that I can’t control my hand and that the figure nearly has hold of it.
I blink frantically.
The Doctor seems to understand.
“It’s happening,” she says. “Nurse B________, prep the crash cart. And bring me a seventh Osinum dose.”
Nurse B________’s footsteps are speedy but deliberate. I hear wheels rolling. I see a shadow flicker out over the ceiling as she leaves, and then flicker again as she returns. My outstretched hand begins to tingle. My head swims with light and white noise. The figure leans ever closer.
“Come with me.”
And then it takes my hand. Suddenly everything goes white, bright, but cool. The only thing I hear is something like the ocean that day when the boat turned, and the undertow, the rocks…
Then darkness. Noise. A jolt. Red light, pulsing across my eyes. I grunt, maybe aloud, maybe just inside my head. My heart speeds and slows. I breathe.
“That was closer than I’d’ve liked,” the Doctor says. “Nurse B________ please administer the Osinum.”
Vanilla. Breasts. The nurse over me. The needle.
“Mr. R________, this last dose of Osinum will do the trick. Your skeleton will regrow over the next twelve hours, and parts of that might be painful, but it’s only temporary. We’ll be monitoring you closely, and Nurse B________ will employ some sedatives to prevent any additional relapses of Finleymania.”
I try to say ‘thank you,’ but without a skull, jaw, or palate, it comes out as “Thrrrk.” I try again. There’s something around my tongue now. It must be starting already. I try again.
“Thnkoo,” I hear myself say.
If I could move, I’d clap triumphantly.
“Good, Mr. R_________,” the Doctor says. “You’ll be a chatterbox in no time. You know, just ten years ago, someone in your condition would have gone straight to the morgue.”
“Ysssss,” I utter.
“It’s really quite amazing,” the Doctor says. “Modern medicine.”