Sickness

By Jessica Faulds

Indie Writers’ Deathmatch Quarter-Finalist 2008

After he graduated from high school, receiving honours and an award for home economics, Teddy Pommeroy fell prey to a series of unsentimental diseases. It was never brain cancer, polio, athlete’s foot, arthritis, dyslexia, diabetes, or any other condition with a website, a celebrity spokesperson, and a tin can with a slot in its lid at the front till of the 7-11. None of his afflictions could be linked to bravery or masculinity or sex appeal. His scars did not curve over his most flattering bone structures but instead pointed to clusters of moles and cellulite and spider veins. He suffered memory loss, but only insofar as it caused him to lose his keys, forget acquaintances’ names, and buy milk every time he went to the supermarket. The glorious emptiness of the amnesiac would never be his. Oh, for the joy of perpetual absence, he wrote in his journal. Oh, for a moment’s fuck-all!

Such glamour was out of his grasp. He instead had to settle for the irritable bowel, enlarged kidneys, pear-shaped skull, furry tongue, oral thrush, squeaky lungs, enlarged goiter, and flatulence. He contracted syphilis, though he had never before even held a girl’s hand, except for in social dance at school, when Olga Popov, the second-most beautiful girl in his class, had pressed her palm directly into his as they danced the schottische. The girls had an ongoing competition to see who could be the first to give their partner an erection through nothing but hand-to-hand contact. Olga had hardly begun to swirl her fingers over Teddy’s wrist when David Glass ran from the room, hands over the front of his shorts. Later he told Teddy that his dance partner, Sara Peterson, had licked his palm, and Teddy then told Olga, and Olga called Sara a whore and overturned her lunch tray in the cafeteria.

Several years later, Teddy was the only virgin syphilitic at the sexual health clinic. He was too embarrassed to admit it, but he was sure the doctors knew. During a routine check, a male nurse informed him that his testicles had yet to fully descend.

At times, it was all too much. He decided that he must kill himself, but when he tried, his veins sunk deeper into his fishy-yellow skin, and no amount of jabbing with a penknife could find them. When he tried to swallow pills, his throat closed. His nooses were consistently unreliable. He once began to climb the stairwell of the apartment building he’d moved into after graduation, intending to fling himself from the roof, but his Achilles tendon snapped on the seventh story. A sudden attack of laryngitis kept anyone from hearing his screams.

****

It is not often that one finds the word “miracle” embedded in the newsprint of a reputable paper, except for in interviews with the mothers of heart transplant recipients, who, it must be noted, are generally under considerable strain. Nevertheless, there it was: “Real live unicorn performs miracle healings!” In the classifieds, of course, one of thousands of starred, bolded, and underlined captions. Testimonies followed: Cured my ringworm! Quit smoking! Helped me get over my ex-wife! Fifty dollars – cash only.

Unicorns, also, are rarely found in the paper.

He circled the ad with a red felt-tipped pen and stared at it as he rubbed aloe into the eczema in the crooks of his elbows.

Teddy called in sick to work. He worked at a phone research lab, telephoning people and trying to get them to answer questions about their diet. Often the calls became confusing, going something like this:

****

-Hello?

-Hello, ma’am, my name is Teddy, and I’m-

-Hello?

-Hello. Can you hear me? My name is Teddy. I’m calling to see if you would like to participate in a phone survey.

-A what?

-A survey. A phone survey. About healthy eating. We’re conducting a brief survey on behalf of the Initiative for Healthy-

-Do you know who I am?

He did not know who she was.

-No, I don’t. Your phone number was randomly selected by-

-I’m Norma MacEwan, and I’m eighty-one years old, and my husband is dead.

She sounded defiant. Not sad at all. Sometimes people cried on the phone, but this was not one of those calls. The woman’s voice was crisp and dry.

-Oh, I see, said Teddy, who did not see at all, and was beginning to have an ache in his ear from his telephone headset.

-That’s right.

-Oh. Well then.

-Thank you, she said, and hung up.

****

He usually made about three hundred calls in a day and completed anywhere from two to seven surveys. He made fifty-six dollars a day, minus five that he spent on lunch. That left enough for one miracle healing, with a dollar left over.

He called in sick.

-Diarrhea again? said the sympathetic receptionist.

He blushed uselessly into the phone.

-No, just a headache. A bad headache. A migraine.

He faked a cough, then realized there was no reason he should be coughing and tried to turn it into a simple throat-clearing.

-Well, I’ll see you tomorrow then.

****

He took a tab of bromazepam to calm his nerves, put new arch-support pads into his orthopedic shoes, and then walked to the bus, which cost two dollars, which brought the day’s expenses to $57 – more than a day’s wages. In his bag he had brought his medications, a sweater, and a banana for the unicorn because he had no apples. He got off at a cul-de-sac of beige houses with two-door garages and walked along a curving sidewalk until he reached a house whose address matched the one on the ad. He had not been expecting a house. He had thought it would be a dark shop, a musty set of stairs leading down into an earthy cavern filled with the clanking of iron. He had not expected vinyl sideboards. Is it legal to run a business from your suburban home? Is a unicorn a business? He knocked on the door.

It was answered by a white-bearded man who was wearing yellow rubber gloves and who introduced himself as Yorick.

-Thank God, said Yorick, opening the screen door. -You the plumber?

Teddy, confused, shook his head and held out the ad.

-Oh, right. I prefer it if you make an appointment next time. There’s a phone number in the paper. You got fifty bucks?

Teddy held out the bill. Yorick shook off a glove, took the bill, examined it, and tucked it into the waistband of his pants.

-Come with me.

Yorick led Teddy around the house to the back yard where there was a blue-and-white striped circus tent.

-She’s in there, he said, and turned back towards the house.

Teddy stopped him.

-Wait, how does it work? What do I do?

-It will come to you.

Teddy nodded. Of course. How new age. He entered.

****

It was a goat. A goat with its horns somehow twined together in the centre of its forehead, making one thick horn. A goat wearing a golden cape. A goat. A rope was tied around its neck and fastened to a wooden pin that had been hammered into the ground. Once more: a goat.

Teddy went out of the tent and found Yorick on his back porch fooling with the barbecue.

-That’s a goat, he said.

-It’s a unicorn, Yorick said. -I made her myself, raised her from a kid. It’s a surgical procedure, passed down secret through the generations. My father taught it to me.

Teddy began to mumble, another of his afflictions. Chronic mumbling, his speech pathologist had said.

-But… the paper said… a miracle.

-I see, said Yorick, affronted. -If I create a unicorn myself, then she’s not a miracle. A unicorn is only a miracle if she flies down from a golden cloud. I suppose you think that triple bypass surgery also isn’t miracle.

He placed his palm flat against the front of his shirt where surely a white scar lurked beneath. He was a very large man.

-No, no, I’m sorry, said Teddy.

-I tell you, this unicorn cures!

-I’m sorry. I’ll try again.

Teddy returned to the tent. The unicorn lay on the ground, twisting its head, trying to free its horn from the rope and the cape in which it had become entangled. It was hilarious and depressing. Teddy tried to help it, but when he approached, it backed away, snuffling loudly, afraid of his touch. He held up his palms to show he meant no harm, but this sort of human signal means nothing to unicorns.

He inched closer, and the unicorn continued to snuffle and began to stamp her feet. The place where the rope was around her neck was rubbed raw, pink and wet. Teddy backed away and the unicorn became still, so he was able to look at her more closely. There were also sores along her back legs, bald patches that looked like half-cooked meat, and the fur around her anus was reddish and dirty. Her eyes leaked thick green tears, and the corners of her mouth bled. The unicorn stared at him angrily, and he knew what to do. It came to him.

He took the banana and three tabs of Bromazepam out of his bag, then reconsidered. Four tabs. He peeled the banana. The stem snapped cleanly, and he did not end up grinding the banana to mush as he pulled away the skin. He placed a Bromazepam on his finger and then pushed his finger into the fruit. He did this four times until there were four pills inside of the banana, and then he crouched down and tossed the banana in front of the unicorn, who ate it and then became drowsy and then fell asleep.

Teddy removed the rope from around the unicorn’s neck. She was drooling a green liquid threaded with blood. He wrapped his sweater around her and attempted to lift her, but she was too heavy, and so he simply dragged the sweater along the ground with her on it. He lifted up the wall of the tent, ran from the yard while Yorick was leaning over his propane tank, and hailed a cab.

****

At first the unicorn did not take well to living in an apartment building. She pulled out strings from the green shag carpet and ate them, and then defecated cotton balls into the corners of the rooms. She generally avoided Teddy and slept in the broom closet. Teddy placed straw in a mixing bowl for her, but she would not eat if he was nearby. At night he could hear her snuffling. He named her Trixie.

She was still dirty, and she smelled like dry rot, and so after two weeks of gentle avoidance, he threw a towel over her and wrestled her into the bath. She flailed, kicking him in the jaw. He pushed her roughly against the side of the tub with one hand and turned on the tap with the other, and when the water hit her, she stopped struggling. He loosened his hold. Warm water sprayed onto the front of his shirt as he lathered her with baby shampoo, and she stayed still, if only from fear. He gently dribbled water from his hand over the sores on her legs. When he was done, he rubbed her softly with a towel. Then he chopped up a carrot and put it in a bowl, and she let him sit near her as she ate it.

They began to watch movies together. Blade Runner, Das Einhorn, Legend. They had to turn off The Last Unicorn halfway through because it was too frightening. As the red bull charged towards the unicorns on screen, Trixie leaned involuntarily into Teddy’s side, and the place where they touched radiated warmth. He fed her some popcorn.

He bought lemon oil and polished her horn. It gradually softened and began to gently glow. She made a sound when she was warm and happy, a deep hum. He took to reading aloud before he went to sleep, and often she came into his room to listen, sprawling along the foot of his bed. She hummed her deep hum, and he recited “The Lion and the Unicorn”, altering the words so that the lion no longer beat the unicorn all around the town.

One night she fell asleep on his bed, and he covered her with a blanket. She still smelled faintly of rot, but it was masked by shampoo. She’d been having baths regularly. Teddy rubbed her horn with his thumb and fell asleep clutching it gently.

****

He woke up in a dream. He was lying in a patch of muddy grass in a makeshift canvas hut. Outside the hut it was raining, and he could hear men laughing. He moved to get up and see what was happening, but he was pulled back by a rope around his neck, tied to a stake in the ground. A voice called outside.

-All right, you! Next!

There was the sound of chain clinking, and then two men entered. The first was tall and blonde. He wore a handsome suit and a gold band on his ring finger. As he walked into the tent Teddy saw that he had a limp, a twisted stagger with every second step, his ankle bent sideways. The second man was Yorick. The blond man handed Yorick a bill, and Yorick went back outside.

-Twenty minutes, he called over his shoulder, and left.

The blond man kneeled in front of Teddy, and looked into his face. He reached out for the horn that grew from Teddy’s forehead, took it in his hand, felt for cracks with his nail. He rubbed the horn. He moved his hand up and down its shaft. Then he yanked it to the ground.

Teddy’s neck twisted. The man held the horn to the ground and maneuvered himself so that he was behind Teddy. He loosened his tie. The man grabbed Teddy’s back legs and pulled them apart. His breath was thick and heavy. He leaned his weight against Teddy’s back as he undid his belt. Teddy snuffled into the dirt. The man clenched his fist tight on a handful of Teddy’s fur and moaned shaky quiet moans as he thrust forward again and again, each time pulling back hard on the horn. Teddy was torn apart. Then the man dressed himself, combed his hair, and walked out of the tent, his stroll smooth and uninjured.

Teddy woke. Trixie was looking at him, crusted moisture around her eyes. He began to cry. When he was done, he sighed heavily, and his lungs did not squeak.

Trixie slept on his bed from then on. Each night was a different dream of a different man with a different sickness. Each night he cried until his pillow was soaked with greenish tears, until he was limp and ragged, and everything, every ache and pain drained from him. He sobbed and clenched the pillow, and Trixie snuffled and groaned and rolled on the foot of the bed, and he slept with his mouth wide open and woke up new. His skull shrank, his tongue smoothed, his bowels began to contract normally. The rot smell left Trixie, and the sores on her legs began to grow over with fluffy white fur. After a year, the dreams decreased in frequency, and in another six months they stopped entirely. There were no men left. Trixie’s horn fell off one evening in the bath, and Teddy threw it in the compost. He slept entire nights without even the shadow of a dream. He became a supervisor at his job, and she became a goat. And so they were healed.

Jessica lives and drinks in Edmonton, Alberta. She also plays in the band Blind Tiger, Tiger.

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