by Pat Cadigan
[Continued from Part 2]
Nell labored toward wakefulness as if she were climbing a rock wall with half a dozen sandbags dangling on long ropes tied around her waist. Her mouth was full of steel wool and sand. She knew that taste -- medication. It would probably take most of a day to spit that out.
She had tried medication in the beginning because Marcus had begged her to. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety capsules, and finally anti-psychotics -- they had all tasted the same because she hadn't been depressed, anxious, or psychotic. Meanwhile, Marcus had gotten farther and farther away, which, unlike the dry mouth, the weight gain, or the tremors in her hands, was not reversible.
Call-Me-Anne had no idea about that. She kept trying to get Nell to see Marcus, unaware they could barely perceive each other anymore. Marcus didn't realize it either, not the way she did. Marcus thought that was reversible, too.
Pools of colour began to appear behind her heavy eyelids, strange colours that shifted and changed, green to gold, purple to red, blue to aqua, and somewhere between one colour and another was a hue she had never found anywhere else and never would.
Sight. Hearing. Smell. Taste. Touch. __________.
The word was a boulder trying to fit a space made for a pebble smoothed over the course of eons and a distance of lightyears into a precise and elegant thing.
Something can be a million lightyears away and in your eye at the same time.
Sight. Hearing. Smell. Taste. Touch. ___________.
She had a sudden image of herself running around the base of a pyramid, searching for a way to get to the top. While she watched, it was replaced by a new image, of herself running around an elephant and several blind men; she was still looking for a way to get to the top of the pyramid.
The image dissolved and she became aware of how heavy the overhead lights were on her closed eyes. Eye. She sighed; even if she did finally reach understanding -- or it reached her -- how would she ever be able to explain what blind men, an elephant, and a pyramid combined with Columbus's ships meant?
The musty smell of surrender broke in on her thoughts. It was very strong; Call-Me-Anne was still there. After a bit, she heard the sound of a wooden spoon banging on the bottom of a pot. Frustration, but not just any frustration: Marcus's.
She had never felt him so clearly without actually seeing him. Perhaps Call-Me-Anne's surrender worked as an amplifier.
The shifting colours resolved themselves into a new female voice. "…much do either of you know about the brain?"
"Not much," Call-Me-Anne said. Marcus grunted, a stone rolling along a dirt path.
"Generally, synesthesia can be a side effect of medication or a symptom."
"What about mental illness?" Marcus asked sharply, the spoon banging louder on the pot.
"Sometimes mentally ill people experience it but it's not a specific symptom of mental illness. In your wife's case, it was a symptom of the tumours."
"Tumours?" Call-Me-Anne was genuinely upset. Guilt was a soft scratching noise, little mouse claws on a hard surface.
"Two, although there could be three. We're not sure about the larger one. The smaller one is an acoustic neuroma, which --"
"Is that why she hears things?" Marcus interrupted.
The doctor hesitated. "Probably not, although some people complain of tinnitus. It's non-cancerous, doesn't spread, and normally very slow-growing. Your wife's seems to be growing faster than normal. But then there's the other one." Pause. "I've only been a neurosurgeon for ten years so I can't say I've seen everything but this really is quite, uh…unusual. She must have complained of headaches."
A silence, then Call-Me-Anne cleared her throat. "They seemed to be cluster headaches. Painful but not exactly rare. I have them myself. I gave her some of my medication but I don't know if she took it."
Another small pause. "Sometimes she said she had a headache but that's all," Marcus said finally. "We've been legally separated for a little over two years, so I'm not exactly up-to-date. She sleeps on the street."
"Well, there's no telling when it started until we can do some detailed scans."
"How much do those cost?" Marcus asked. Then after a long moment: "Hey, she left me to sleep on the street after I'd already spent a fortune on shrinks and prescriptions and hospitalizations. Then they tell me you can't force a person to get treated for anything unless they're a danger to the community, blah, blah, blah. Now she's got brain tumours and I'm gonna get hit for the bill. Dammit, I shoulda divorced her but it felt too --" The spoon scraped against the iron pot. "Cruel."
"You were hoping she'd snap out of it?" said the doctor. "Plenty of people feel that way. It's normal to hope for a miracle." Call-Me-Anne added some comforting noises, and said something about benefits and being in the system.
"Yeah, okay," Marcus said. "But you still didn't answer my question. How much do these scans cost?"
"Sorry, I couldn't tell you, I don't have anything to do with billing," the doctor said smoothly. "But we can't do any surgery without them."
"I thought you already did some," Marcus said.
"We were going to. Until I saw what was behind her eye."
"It's that big?" asked Marcus.
"It's not just that. It's -- not your average tumour."
Marcus gave a humourless laugh. "Tumours are standardized, are they?"
"To a certain extent, just like the human body. This one, however, isn't behaving quite the way tumours usually do." Pause. "There seems to be some grey matter incorporated into it."
"What do you mean, like it's tangled up in her brain? Isn't that what a tumour does, get all tangled up in a person's brain? That's why it's hard to take out, right?"
"This is different," the doctor said. "Look, I've been debating with myself whether I should tell you about this --"
"If you're gonna bill me, you goddam better tell me," Marcus growled. "What's going on with her?"
"Just from what I could see, the tumour has either co-opted part of your wife's brain -- stolen it, complete with blood supply -- or there's a second brain growing in your wife's skull."
There was a long pause. Then Marcus said, "You know how crazy that sounds? You got any pictures of this?"
"No. Even if I did, you're not a neurosurgeon, you wouldn't know what you were looking at."
"No? I can't help thinking I'd know if I were looking at two brains in one head or not."
"The most likely explanation for this would be a parasitic twin," the doctor went on. "It happens more often than you'd think. The only thing is, parasitic twins don't suddenly take to growing. And if it had always been so large, you'd have seen signs of it long before now.
"Unfortunately, I couldn't even take a sample to biopsy. Your wife's vitals took a nosedive and we had to withdraw immediately. She's fine now -- under the circumstances. But we need to do those scans as soon as possible. Her right eye was so damaged by this tumour that we couldn't save it. If we don't move quickly enough, it's going to cause additional damage to her face."
Nell took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. She hadn't thought they would hear her but they had; all three stopped talking and Call-Me-Anne and Marcus scurried over to the side of her bed, saying her name in soft, careful whispers, as if they thought it might break. She kept her eyes closed and her body limp, even when Call-Me-Anne took her hand in both of hers and squeezed it tight. After a while, she heard them go.
How had they done that, she marveled. How had they done it from so far away?
Something can be a million lightyears away and in your eye at the same time.
Her mind's eye showed her a picture of two vines entangled with each other. Columbus's ships, just coming into view. The sense she had been missing was not yet fully developed, not enough to reconcile the vine and the ships. But judging from what the doctor said, it wouldn't be long now.
"The Taste of Night" is one of fifteen original stories included in the anthology Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern, and forthcoming from Daw Books on June 1. For more information on this anthology, start here.
Pat Cadigan is the author of fifteen books, including two making-of movie books, four media tie-ins, three short-fiction collections, one young adult book, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novels Synners (1991) and Fools (1994). She tweets as Cadigan, faces Facebook as Pat Cadigan, lives out loud on LiveJournal as fastfwd, and still finds time to roam around London with her husband, the Original Chris Fowler.
You can read the next story from Is Anybody Out There? now -- Jay Lake's "Permanent Fatal Errors."