Short fiction: Odds for living

She didn’t know until years passed that she was part of The Lump. For two years that belied the future, there was no Lump. Then the coldness settled in, lingering, chill, unexpected, like a late-season frost. No exercise on her part—exercises in good humor, good cooking, or good sex—could warm them. Tentative approaches, “You OK?” “How did it go today?” “Do you feel well?” brought formal, cool retreats, “Fine.” “Fine.” I’m fine.” She hated the word, distorted its meaning in her mind, could not say it herself.
But that was before she comprehended The Lump. To her, their children were people, her heart, the loves of her life. To him in these sad seasons, they were The Lump. When the existential nausea dragged him to a discontented, wintry place where no one could follow, his mind morphed and coalesced the shapes of their lives—their two children—into an irritating, weighty, filial lump. Although she sensed the transformation, she had not realized that the mass engulfed her personhood, too. She was part of the collective Lump.
“It’s hard to explain,” he explained. Odd that one with such articulation, who owned and used the OED, would find anything hard to explain. He reminded her now of dark trees in January, all promises stripped away. Left behind, sharp, naked loss. She could not come near without pain.
“Explain it. I need to know,” she had replied. She never looked at the OED. The words she had were enough for her. His eyes expressed nothing. She wondered if she could empty her seeing as completely. Probably not. Light penetrated her mind’s deepest corners.
“I’m here, and I can’t care,” he said. “But I don’t care where you are, either. Who you are. Who they are. My millstones. Staying is a struggle. It’s not you, it’s not them. It’s in me.”
The words emerged from his dark places, too flat to hold emotion. Her ears accepted them, but her mind refused. This could kill. She needed self-defense. “Go on,” she said. I am Fine, she thought. A fleet-footed notion toed lightly, quickly, through her mind, trailing a banner whose emblem she could not quite make out. She closed her eyes because she could not, not now, empty them.
“I know this will end,” he continued. “I can see the surface, I feel close to breathing again. But from this place, you are The Lump. My daily duty, what I must do. It’s not what I want to do, and I fight it even in my dreams.”
She looked at the pillow beneath her hands. Its snow-white softness brought her to a place where promises had been real. There had been books and pillow talk and conceptions and births and warm nights. She clutched it with both of her hands.
“Do what you must,” she said.
He recovered from the season of The Lump. Chemicals, blocking the reuptake of happiness, finally let it cling hopefully, tentatively in his mind. The sun rose and set, and he played monster on the floor, children running and shrieking and laughing like wild things. Jokes emerged. Laughter followed. Ruthless, powerful, impulsive hugs and pats that almost hurt. Nights flourished on the white pillow. She almost forgot about The Lump.
But it came back. She began to dread them, the signs that the season had returned. Pills, untouched. Days dark and lonely, even in togetherness. Eyes empty. Her eyes could see, did see, as she and the children became one, a unit, all over again. But he was still the one, sad and lonely in these times, and thus, still she stayed. Her strength buoyed the mass.
Evenings fell darkest. In them, her anger hardened, could not escape its tight, emotionally bound shell. She knew that freeing it, annihilating everything around her, would change nothing about the end. Her disappointment in promises unkept raged and raged. Her fury at imbalances of strength, molecules, love, words, burned in her mind.
“What if we leave you,” she wanted to say. But inside the mass of her anger hid a whisper that the leaving was what he wanted. His own moral impotence created The Lump, pleading silently for his release. His powerlessness of action left them metamorphosed, depersonified. Time could not move them. Only she could do that.
There had been a time when her personhood formed his center. She fed him strength, sustained him with what she had in terrific abundance, enough to shine on them all. They spoke, often without words, and understood. Secret passages in crowds, messages no one else could see. It was the sweet springtime of them, they, we, us. Then change.
His cold seasons grew harsher, history opening the path wider, more clearly. They came on faster, sometimes with a speed that eluded consciousness, there with morning awakening. Their wintry clutch trapped them all, satellites to his barren world. She tiptoed mentally around him, not daring a full footfall, worried that it would break the tenuous thread that kept him tethered. The full pill bottle called her, suggestive, importuning. She knew he would refuse.
Her anger could not warm them. Even so, knowing so, she eventually freed it in small, volcanic bursts, using it to prod, surprise, threaten.
“What you’re doing is wrong,” she said, knowing right and wrong ostensibly mattered to him.
“It’s right for us,” he replied. “It’s right for us, to stay together.”
“No,” she said. “There is no right for us right now.” The pillow lay cold beneath her hands. She touched her forehead to its coolness, closed her full eyes. The fleet-footed thought, banner trailing, slipped again like mercury through her mind. She could not, perhaps did not want to, catch it. He did not respond.
In the sweet springtime of them, they, we, us, his angry fire would have lit them both, warmed the pillow, precipitated a satisfying, full, hot repartee ending in consummation. Her words spilling, emotional quicksilver, unpredictable and unsupported, meant for contradiction from his wiser vantagepoint. She would bend to his words, submit to his thoughts, envelop herself in the tempered steel of his ideas, supporting them with her strength. No more. His ideas were hers no more. Her strength could find no ingress, no chink in the steel.
The sparks that kept her alive, the children, her inextricable link to him, kept her amazed. Where did it come from, their aliveness? How could he not see it, feel its warmth? They seemed unaware that they were part of The Lump. They thought they were people, and played like children do. Could The Lump be a collection, not a mass, but a group? She took comfort from them, from the thought. They laughed, and she—not laughed—but smiled. And closed her full eyes, resting.
Then her own lump came into being. No amorphous mass, a true, defined lump. It had flourished quickly, finding new paths, new soft places, new ground to place its roots and grow, malignant and terrible. It came at a time when she was part of the larger Lump, a down season, a cold period. She told him of the threat, knowing it would not snap him back to them or guide his hand to the pill bottle.
“What’s the prognosis?”
She spread her hands across the pillow, closing her body into the bed. Why during these seasons was this always their place?
“It can be removed,” she said. “And so can the nodes, to be safe. Good odds for living.” The fleet-footed thought slipped again across her mind. It left behind footprints, hollows where ideas caught and collected. She took them up, finally read them. The message was his own. It can be removed. And so can the nodes.
“But the rest?” he asked. He had not noticed the pillow, ever. She smoothed its white wrinkles.
“There is nothing more,” she said. “That should end it.”
Soon, he was gone, in another room, alone. He left her strength behind, still needing it.
Message received, her eyes opened, emptied onto the pillow. She saw then what the prognosis would be.
It was removed, as were the nodes. The Lump was no more. A complete excision.
Days brightened, softly. She mourned quietly. Anger evanesced, left her body, dissipated from her mind. No more importuning pills. No more cold nights, distant days. She kept the pillow, a soft reminder of a broken promise. A corner of her heart, permanently darkened, prodded with worry for him, lonely, without her strength. The rest of the healthy muscle beat, proudly and joyfully, in the rhythm of new life.
In the fresh sweetness of springtime, she watched her children play, and at last she smiled, freely, without intent.