“God, I can’t stand this anymore!” Blair sat up in bed. She wrapped her arms around her middle as if she were trying to keep her insides from exploding through her stomach. The pain was worsening. Despite the ultrasounds, lab work, X-rays, and countless consultations, there had been no conclusive diagnosis for her searing abdominal pain. No tumors. No tissue scarring. No disease. No luck. By her ninth second opinion, she’d all but given up hope of ever going back to her life as it was, the life before the sickness had ravaged her world. Now, the pain meds were barely working. Useless pills. I wonder . . . how many would it take to . . . ?
There had been a time in the not-so-distant past when the idea of ending her life would’ve been unthinkable. Now, it felt like a reasonable option . . . an escape plan. Enough! This ends tonight! It was a promise she meant to keep. First, she somehow had to make it to the medicine cabinet for the pills. It might as well have been a hundred miles away. The trip to the bathroom was nearly intolerable when she was having a good day. But tonight, the thought of making the journey bordered on the cruel and terrifying. One more trip. Just one last push, then it’ll be over.
Blair planned to make the trek in manageable stages. First, she needed to stand up. She inhaled deeply and swung her legs over the side of the bed. The discomfort was not as bad as she had feared. Next, she rocked forward a few times and, when ready, stood up straight.
“Oh, my Goood!” She felt as though she’d swallowed a hefty dose of lightning. Her joints stiffened and her teeth gritted so hard that she feared they would splinter. Blair took in short snippets of air through her nostrils as if they could somehow dilute the agony. After a moment, the pain subsided enough for her to continue. Blair cried as she contemplated the most challenging part of the journey, the walk to the bathroom. “Please, give me just a bit more strength. Just a little more, I’m begging you,” she whimpered. Grunting with each step, she inched closer toward the place wherein her salvation lay.
By the time Blair got to the bathroom, she was exhausted. She placed her hands on each side of the sink, bracing herself up. She gasped when she looked in the mirror. The fit and trim woman who used to weigh a healthy one hundred twenty pounds was now an eighty-pound scarecrow. Her sallow skin sagged as if it were too heavy for her frame to support any longer. Her bulging eyes looked like two grotesque orbs straining to break free of their skeletal cage. Although she grieved for the woman she once was, she simply couldn’t cry any more; she was too spent.
Blair opened the medicine cabinet and looked at the pharmacy that now inhabited it. She spotted the hydromorphone and plucked it from the stack of other medications the doctors had prescribed. She looked at the bottle as if it were a loaded gun. Her resolve began to wane. It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid. Just do it quickly and be done with it before you change your mind. She popped the lid and shook four tablets into her palm: twice the dosage. To be on the safe side, she added two more. She filled one of the small plastic cups beside the sink, threw the pills toward the back of her throat, and took the full shot of water.
Then she sat on the edge of the bathtub and waited for the pain to lessen enough for her to make the return trip to her bed. Within minutes, she became light-headed. Once the pain ebbed, she stood up and plodded back to what she hoped would be her next to final resting place.
She fell onto the mattress, closed her weighty eyelids, and waited for the lightness of death that would allow her to drift away like a wispy, white feather.
The light pouring through the window of Blair’s bedroom the following morning covered her frail body in a blanket of soft gold. After a few tries, her eyes opened and remained so. Her mind was fuzzy, her body limp and heavy. As she became lucid, she realized that she’d lived to see another day. “Oh no, not again,” she moaned.
She had sat up and gotten out of bed before she realized that her discomfort was somewhat bearable. The extra pills had served a useful purpose after all. However, experience had taught her that moments such as these were short-lived. Her thoughts taunted her. I couldn’t even catch a break from suicide. The second time’s the charm, though. But first, let’s make this last day feel normal, for a little while anyway.
Blair decided that, more than anything, she wanted to be around people again. She managed to get showered and dressed. When she was ready, she called an Uber to take her to the downtown district. It’d been ages since she’d wandered its streets, shops, and cafes. Before leaving, she downed a couple more hydromorphone tablets to take the edge off, making sure to leave plenty for later.
The Uber dropped her off in front of a coffee shop she used to frequent. The uncomfortable stares from the customers as she entered brought about a swell of embarrassment and sadness. She didn’t need a mirror at that moment to remind her of her cringe-worthy appearance; their expressions cut deeper than any cruel reflection could.
Blair limped to one of the tables situated at the back wall of the cafe and eased onto one of its soft, padded seats. Hoping to escape any further scrutiny, she hid behind a menu and waited.
The server’s reaction to seeing her was awkward but expected. Her clumsy attempt at appearing compassionate struck Blair as disingenuous and patronizing. Pushing the unintended offense aside, she relaxed and ordered something. She played things safe and asked for a small muffin and some tea for her breakfast.
The items smelled wonderful, and the very sight of them cheered her. However, the best Blair could manage was half of the muffin and less of the warm tea. Given how much her stomach had shrunk, it was enough to satisfy her.
After leaving the coffee shop, Blair walked along the sidewalk. Her senses absorbed every sight, sound, and smell. Despite the busy life that was swirling around her, she felt melancholy tugging at her soul. The day’s activity would be her last glimpse of real life—a life she’d taken for granted. Blair knew she was ill, had for a while. But this was the first time that she felt like a ghost, a stubborn soul that had not yet taken its leave. She decided that she’d walk a few more blocks, then go home and vanquish the pain for good.
Blair was halfway down the third and final block when she came to a store she couldn’t remember having seen before. It was a small, nondescript shop. Its modest appearance was in conspicuous contrast to the more modern, trendier stores. Even its door looked out of date. It was a simple affair: a wood frame with a single large pane of glass in the door’s upper half. Stenciled in old-style calligraphy was the shop’s name: Dark Secrets. Blair appreciated its lack of pretension. Curious, she turned the door’s knob and entered.
Ring. Blair was surprised by the small bell over the door that rang as she walked in—she found it quaint and musical. Despite the foot traffic just beyond its door, the shop was empty of customers. Its interior brought to Blair’s mind an eerily life-like Norman Rockwell painting of a small-town general store. The old ceiling fans, combined with the rough hardwood floors, created a worn, rustic look. The place was full of shelves and glass display cases of mystical odds and ends: jars of colored powders, crystals, incense, old books, and so on. Blair felt as if she’d stumbled through a mirrored doorway and into a magical lair. So enthralled was she by the spiritual essence of the place that the woman’s voice startled her.
“How would you care to be served today?” She
spoke with a lyrical accent that Blair couldn’t quite place. The
diminutive woman was dressed in a loose, brightly colored muumuu. She
was middle-aged, with piercing gray eyes. Her unkempt mane of bushy,
white hair was so bright that Blair squinted at first. Despite the woman’s
small stature, her presence was intimidating. “I apologize for
having startled you.”
The woman swiveled her head from side to side as if she were viewing the setting for the first time. “Yes,” she said, “a lot of interesting things.” She looked directly at Blair, locking eyes with her. “Something brings you here today. A worry. A need. Ah, that’s it: a need.” Her eyes closed, and she tilted her head to one side as if she were receiving an important message from some mystical force far away. “It’s a deep, physical pain that modern practices cannot abate.”
“That’s . . . right.” The woman’s intuition both impressed and unnerved Blair.
As if sensing her apprehension, the woman’s ominous demeanor changed to that of a kind and gentle patience. “Fear not, child; I can help you.” Then her gaze settled on an item on a middle shelf to Blair’s right.
It was a small, glass bottle, not much bigger than a shot
glass, sealed with a cork. There was no label of any kind to identify
the single ingredient, a black, gray-speckled capsule.
Blair pinched the curious remedy between her thumb and index finger. After studying it for a bit, Blair asked, “What is it?”
“What’s inside that bottle will devour all your pain. That is your need—your desire—yes?”
Blair wanted to believe the woman, but she didn’t
want to be duped either. Such an act seemed cruel and self-serving.
After all, she had a bottle full of cure waiting at home in her medicine
cabinet. Why should the woman profit from her misery? As far as Blair
was concerned, the woman was offering her little more than snake oil.
But her anguish was forcing her hand. She wanted so badly to believe
that there was hope for herself that she pushed aside her suspicions
and allowed herself to be vulnerable.
The woman smiled at Blair in the way that a mother would behold her splendid child. “I know, I know, young one. Your clear and logical mind is saying, Oooh, crazy lady. Look at all her shrunken heads, potions, and crystals. But then, there’s that part of you that wants—needs—to know that magic exists.” She pointed at the jar that Blair was clutching. “That item can erase the agony that the so-called specialists claimed could never be healed. The choice, of course, is yours. But ask yourself: ‘After all of the medicines that have been given to me up till now, do I feel better or worse?’” The woman let the question hover for a bit. “As I said, the decision is yours. Either way, thank you for coming in, and be sure to tell a friend.” Then the woman walked away.
The woman stopped. Without turning around, she asked, “Yes?”
The woman turned and walked back to Blair. “Nothing . . . now. But when the cure has done its work, call me, and I will come to you. We’ll discuss a payment then.”
Blair’s wariness returned. “So, you don’t want me to pay you for this today? I can just take it and go? How do you know I won’t cheat you?”
“None ever have; I’m sure you won’t
either.” She reached into one of her pockets and retrieved a small
card, and handed it to Blair. When Blair tried to take the card from
her, the woman held onto its edge tightly. In a very sober tone, she
said, “Listen, child. You must be very patient. You’ll need
to give the medicine plenty of time to completely heal you—a few
weeks and none less.” Then, she let go of the card, allowing Blair
to take it.
“I’m sure you won’t, child. Now go. Take it, and I will wait for your call.” Just as Blair got to the door, it occurred to her to ask an important question she’d not thought of before. “Excuse me, Ma’am. Are there any side effects I need to know about?”
“Once the medicine begins its work, you’ll experience some tiredness, and your appetite will increase. Anything else?”
“No. Thank you for a—”
The woman walked to the backroom, leaving Blair alone with her miracle cure.
Blair didn’t want to wait until she got home before taking the capsule, so she returned to the coffee shop she’d visited earlier. She ordered a cup of coffee, and then called for an Uber. She took the small bottle from her purse and laid it on the table in front of her. She stared at it, wondering if it would help her if only a bit. Anything’s better than nothing. When her coffee arrived, she removed the capsule from the bottle and swallowed it with a swig of the coffee. The hot liquid angered her insides. Thankfully, by the time the Uber arrived, the burning had subsided. She climbed into the back of the car and went straight home to see what was going to happen next.
The cloak of twilight painted Blair’s apartment with a bluish tinge. She was reading, as she lay curled up in an oversized, leather chair beside the living room window. The growl from her stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten anything since earlier. She closed the book and set about making dinner.
Once she was in the kitchen, she found a small pot and set it on the stove. Then she opened a cupboard and twirled the Lazy Susan until she found a can of tomato soup. Soft foods and liquids were all she could tolerate. She remembered the woman’s promise that her appetite would improve. I’d give everything I own for a single slice of pepperoni and pineapple pizza. Once she had heated the soup to a moderately warm temperature, she emptied it into a bowl and then grabbed a spoon.
Blair sat down at the table and worked up the courage to eat. With hesitation, she spooned some of the soup into her mouth. She braced herself for the first wave of suffering. But to her pleasure and amazement, the tepid liquid made its way painlessly to her stomach. She ate a couple of more spoonfuls—again, no burning sensation. Relieved by the kindness of her stomach, she gulped down the rest of the soup.
Blair stood up from the table so fast that she toppled her chair. “Omigosh! It worked!” She briefly considered rushing back to Dark Secrets and giving the woman a bear hug. But first, her stomach was screaming for another bowl of soup.
Later that evening, Blair stood before her medicine cabinet, the site she had planned for her suicide. She unscrewed the lid of the hydromorphone and shook a couple into her hand. As she began to take them, she realized that she wasn’t in any pain—not even a minor twinge. Blair smiled as she recalled that it had only been that morning when she’d planned to swallow the whole bottle of painkillers. Now, she was content to skip a dose. She returned the medicine to the cabinet and went to bed. For the first time in months, she didn’t need to be drugged out of her mind to fall asleep.
A strong grumbling in her belly awoke Blair in the middle of the night. Typically, it would’ve been a twisting pain she had to deal with; now, it was a deep hunger. The welcome return of her appetite filled her with joy and gratitude. She climbed out of bed and headed to the kitchen to appease it.
Blair had a craving for something more filling than soup or jello. Although she was thrilled to get her appetite back, she couldn’t wrap her head around the strength of her gnawing hunger. She kept little in the way of solid food, so she ended up placing an order from an all-night diner—a large order.
As she waited for the delivery person, she walked around her apartment, cramming saltines in her mouth. By the time the two ham hoagies arrived, she’d consumed a half dozen individual servings of pudding, two cans of soup, and nearly a gallon of water.
When the food was gone, Blair returned to bed. Although she’d slept many hours before her binge, she was amazed by how exhausted she felt. She slept for another fifteen hours.
When Blair finally awakened, it was late afternoon. Despite
the extraordinary amount of sleep, she was still dog-tired. The only
activity she felt any energy toward was eating.
Blair went crazy at the store. She bought so many groceries that she paid the Uber driver an extra ten dollars to helpher tote them up to her apartment.
Blair was only able to put some of the food away before her stomach began to beckon again. An excessive amount of cookies, sodas, and thick sandwiches eventually sated her appetite. Then the drowsiness returned. She slept for seventeen hours.
The cycle continued for another two weeks. By then, Blair had gained forty-seven pounds and was sleeping nearly twenty hours each night. Her desire to eat was relentless. She considered going back to her doctor but remembered how little he’d been able to help her. She thought of contacting the woman from the store but remembered that she was to wait a few weeks before calling.
Within days, Blair had gained an additional fifteen pounds. She hadn’t bathed in over a week. Her former physical appearance used to frighten her, but her current state shocked her more. As she stood on the bathroom scale, looking down at the escalating numbers, she became concerned. It’s too far. I’m heading too far in the other direction.
Sweaty and dizzy, Blair shuffled to the bathroom sink
and turned on the cold water. She cupped it in her doughy hands and
splashed it on her face. Then, she ran her fingers through her unwashed
hair. The amount that came out startled her. “Oh, God, what’s
wrong with me?”
Once she’d finished gorging on nearly everything that was left in the kitchen, Blair plopped down on the living room sofa. Suddenly, it felt like something was sliding around inside her. Indigestion? She lifted her shirt and looked at her abdomen. A small knob pushed outward. She felt nauseous and afraid. She touched the protrusion with her fingertips, and it receded. Blair began panting like a cornered animal as the mass moved up toward her chest cavity. She screamed. Blood dripped from her nose; she could taste its tang in her mouth. Her mind began whirring. What’d that woman give me? I’m calling her right now!
Blair staggered to the bedroom. “Where is it? WHERE . . . IS . . . IT?” She dumped the contents of her purse onto the bed and pushed the items around until she found her phone and the card with the woman’s number. Blair called and waited. Someone answered on the third ring, but to her, it felt like many more.
“Dark Secrets; what is your need?”
Blair recognized the woman’s exotic voice. Panicked, she said, “Yes, hello. I hope you’ll remember me. I visited your shop a short while back. You sold me a remedy for my chronic stomach pain.”
“Why yes, child; I remember you well.” The woman sounded pleased as if she were hearing from an old friend. “How is your health? Are you eating and sleeping well? The pain, tell me of the pain. Is it gone?”
Blair was shivering. “Yes, the pain’s gone, but I’m experiencing some serious side effects. I sleep for hours on end, and I can’t stop eating. I don’t even recognize myself anymore. Now my hair’s falling out and I’m pretty sure I’m starting to hemorrhage. I’m scared to death.”
“Just as I told you, there would be side effects. Are you experiencing any other symptoms?”
“YES! Something is moving around inside of me. You didn’t say anything about that! Am I going to die? Do I need a doctor?”
Softly, the woman giggled, then, in a reassuring tone,
said, “You are not going to die, child. The remedy has merely
done its job. There’s only one final step, and then you will return
to normal. No more worries, now.”
“And soon it will be. But before I come, I will need to know that you will honor your part of the bargain. I must be paid.”
“Of course. How much do you want?”
“One thousand dollars.”
The price stunned Blair. “Listen, I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but that sounds a little steep for a single dose of medicine.”
“No, no, the remedy is free. The charge is for the removal.”
Blair was confused. “Removal? What removal? What was in that capsule?”
“Oh, my child, that was no capsule—that was
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