Flash of Bright
I wait in the examining room. Mom is pacing back and forth in the hallway, but Dad keeps me company. The doctor is always late. 'Hey Dad,' I ask, 'how 'bout a cash advance? I gotta buy some new shoes.' It'll be a tough sell, considering he just gave me twenty bucks for my seventeenth birthday.
'Sure, why not?' He shrugs and laughs nervously.
Okay, so maybe it wasn't a tough sell.
I hop on the scale to weigh myself. I've been lifting lately, trying to add some muscle, and I'm about five pounds heavier. Dr. Bortis finally comes in. He moves quickly through the usual tests, radiating an air of professionalism as he examines my heart, eyes, ears, and mouth. His deep voice, full of authority, calls my mother into the room.
Doomsday scenarios flash through my head. The urine sample revealed traces of the weed I smoked last week. He's going to tell my parents now. I'm so dead.
'Now, Percy,' Dr. Bortis breaks my line of thought. 'We have to explain to you a very serious situation, and we need you to be mature. Other doctors might want to keep you in the dark, but I think it's better for you to know the truth.'
I hate it when adults ask me to be mature. I'm a senior now and I'll be in college next year. I'm not a kid any more. I can handle anything. I nod to the doctor to continue. Mom sits down next to me and grasps my hand.
'We've done some tests and they show you will develop Huntington's disease. I want you to know this is not your fault. There's nothing anybody could have done. You were born with this condition. It's in your genetic makeup.'
'What is it?' I ask, my voice barely audible. Mom squeezes my hand hard enough to make my wrist hurt.
'It is a rare disease. But we have learned a lot about it. A gene on your fourth chromosome has more than 50 repeats of a certain sequence of base molecules. A normal gene would have less than half as many repeats. Science only gives you estimates, but you've got a pretty severe case and it's likely that symptoms will start to appear around age 30.'
'What symptoms?' I want to ask, but I can't speak. My head is spinning trying to understand what the hell a base molecule is and how it could be repeated 50 times. I picture a Lego set and try to imagine 50 of the same green cubes stacked on top of each other. But I can't. I have no sense of how high it would be. I have no sense of 50 repeats of anything. What do Legos have to do with me anyway? I feel fine. I know when I'm sick.
The doctor catches my eye and starts to explain the symptoms. 'There are psychological and motor disorders. They develop over a period of about 15 years. They make it difficult for you to control your body movements.'
'I won't be able to move?' My face pales. My eyes squint. It doesn't make sense.
'Well, not quite. You'll be able to move clumsily. And you may have a twitch. In the later stages, many patients have tremors and writhing movements beyond their control. The psychological disorders may manifest as depression, poor memory, anxiety, or hallucinations. I personally know scientists who are working to find a cure. And in time, they may. But right now, as we understand it, the disease is fatal.'
There are tears on my father's cheeks. It's the first time I've ever seen him cry.
'This can't be. You're making a mistake.' I raise my voice as if confidence in my belief will somehow make it correct.
'Percy, I'm telling you this for a reason. I'm a doctor, and my job is to give you the best care possible. I know it hurts to hear this. It's probably more than anybody could handle all at one time. And maybe you want to pretend this never happened. And that's fine. But knowledge can empower you. This is your life, and you should know what's in store for you. Look, how old are you right now?'
'Well, you've still got another seventeen years to go. Easy. Right now don't worry about any of this too much. When the time comes you'll know what to do.'
When the sun comes up Monday morning, I go to school like nothing's changed. High school has passed pretty painlessly for me. I like to think it's similar to the army. You do what you're told when you're told, and you don't get in much trouble. No decisions to worry about. Maybe even pick up a few laughs along the way. Mom thought it would be a good idea for me to meet with the school psychologist Mr. McGee today, so I do. It gets me out of history class at least.
He's tall and redheaded and he wears glasses. About what I expected I guess, except younger; he's probably still in his twenties. He allows me to choose a chair and then sits down next to me. He'll want me to talk about my feelings. What am I supposed to say?
'How are you taking the news?' he asks after introductions.
'I don't know. Okay, I guess.'
'Yeah, well, it's like it's better to know now so I can be ready for it. But how do the doctors even know for sure? The tests could be wrong, or they could find a cure or something, right?'
'Percy, nothing is certain until it happens. But the science here is pretty strong. Let's just focus on the time being for now. What did you do over the weekend after you found out?'
'Just the usual things. I practiced my break-dancing a little. And, uh, oh yeah, I read a little bit. I just got the new Crichton book. And of course I had to work on my college application essays.'
'So you're still headed to college? That's a good move.'
'Yeah. Of course. Everybody goes.'
When we're done he tells me we'll meet again. Seems pretty useless, but it won't kill me I suppose.
Rumors begin to fly that I'm dying and will not make it to graduation. I overhear a freshman whispering to his lunch table, 'Word is that guy caught Hunter Gun disease.' I try to eat my lunch with Shuo as usual, but it's impossible. The cheerleaders invite me to sit at their table. When I politely decline them, two other girls from my English class join my own table. The homely one tries to buy me lunch, but I already have a sandwich.
'What are you going to do now?' one asks.
What kind of question is that? 'I'm going to run naked through the school.' They laugh. It's a bit forced. 'And I'm going to fart a lot.' They groan.
'Seriously, you should travel. See the world.'
'Yeah, good idea.' But it's not. I hate museums and cameras and hotel beds. I'd rather just play Shuo's X-Box.
These sorts of conversations, complete with bubbly hand-waving hellos and pity hug good-byes, last all week.
Friday night Shuo takes me out for drinks. We claim two stools at Noche Del Fuego and ask for the tequila special. We flash Shuo's homemade IDs. The drinks don't look all that special, but they do have a bit of kick.
'This one time last year,' Shuo begins, 'I came down here and ended up playing eight ball with this hottie with dark hair and huge tits. We decided loser buys the next round of drinks...'
I drift away. I'm on my second drink and it's easier to just zone out. I try to make out some faces in a booth, but it's too dark.
'At this point I can't even hold the cue steady,' Shuo continues.
I wonder what Raul's secret ingredient is. These tequilas are pretty hot. A touch of Tabasco maybe...
'Puke all over the cue ball.' Shuo sits there with a big grin on his face. I think he's done.
'That's crazy,' I get out.
'C'mon, let's check out Joe's again,' he suggests. 'This place is dead.'
I've lost track of how many drinks I've had. Everything is bouncy now. I'm really, really wasted.
I oversleep Monday and have to rush to school to avoid missing my psychologist appointment. I grab my coat on the way out. I'd been avoiding it since Shuo spilled beer on it Friday night, but now I've got no choice. Mr. McGee and I exchange pleasantries and there is an awkward silence for a moment, like we're each expecting the other to speak. I want to tell him how much I resent my classmates. They're all dreaming of careers in medicine or law and the certain fortune to follow. And my only certainty is death. It's an anchor hanging down from my throat, holding me under water and cutting off my breath. I want nothing more than to cut all the strings and fly away.
'How are you today?' he asks. 'How was the week?'
'I'm fine. You know, considering everything. A lot of people have been... like... really nice to me and all.'
He doesn't understand.
I walk to my locker and slip my hands into my coat pockets in search of a pen. What's this? A joint. I stop. How did that get there? I think back to Friday night, but I can't remember much. Shuo says I keep getting hangovers because I get dehydrated. I need to drink more water. I walk off school grounds and sit down on the curb out behind the A&P to try to make sense of it all.
'Hey, you need a light?' a girl asks. Thin. Too thin. Bony face. Pretty eyes though. I'd do her.
'Um, yeah, why not?'
She sits down next to me.
'Fiona. Pleasure to meet you.'
She lights the joint and hands it to me. I offer her the first hit.
'You have class now?' she asks.
She nods. 'That wind is cold alright.'
I offer her my coat. She accepts.
'I like the wind,' I respond.
'Sometimes I feel like it could just lift me up and take me away.'
'I'd like that.'
Her eyes narrow, and she draws back a bit.
'No, no,' I backtrack. 'I meant I'd like to be taken away.' Shit, now she'll never sleep with me.
'You ever dream you're flying?' she asks. 'I'd love to be able to control my dreams. It's happened to me a couple of times before. Anything goes. Fly up above the clouds. Jump off buildings. Drop in on friends. And then disappear into the air again. It's so cool.' She's beaming.
'I always dream I'm falling,' I counter. 'Every night. I can't remember it perfectly. All I know is I'm stuck in a sewer pipe with a brick wall at the end. It's really dark. My clothes are damp and stick to me. It smells like rain. As I fall the air whooshes by me with a deafening whistle. And just before I smack into the wall, I wake up.'
'How awful,' she sympathizes. I notice my left hand is trembling a bit as she steadies it with an arm around my shoulder. That's the first symptom to hit. I take another hit and inhale deeply. Fiona's arm is soothing, and I push the fear to the back of my mind.
After work Mom asks how classes are going. 'They're all right.' I roll my eyes. 'Why do you have to be so nosy anyway? I'm not flunking out, right?' I shouldn't yell at her like this. She's always wanted me to be successful and secure. But I can't tell her I cut class to get high. Success and security are mere pipe dreams now anyway. You take it all for granted: you marry; you have kids; you raise a family; you earn a living. But not me - not now.
I haven't changed, but everybody else sure has. The school has an assembly for me, an attempt to raise awareness about Huntington's disease and get the facts correct. A doctor from the city hospital lectures about genetics and disease for more than an hour, complete with slides and all. Needless to say, my classmates enjoy one of the few nap times since kindergarten.
'Did you find the assembly informative?' Mr. McGee asks afterwards.
'It was okay. I didn't really pay attention so much. I can't follow all that biology stuff. It got me thinking. If this disease I got is genetic, then one of my natural parents must have it too.'
'Do you know your biological parents?'
'No. Mom and Dad never really told me I was adopted. I just figured it out.'
'Does that bother you?'
'Nah. I mean, it was never really an issue growing up. I don't care if I'm adopted.'
'Do you ever have problems with your parents?'
'My parents? No. Why? Is that common? I guess they're like most parents. They don't really know what it's like to be young anymore. Like they're still living in the sixties.'
No response. I continue.
'Well, it's been a little tough with my mom lately. She hasn't handled the news as well as I have. My parents still have all these expectations for me. Like my mom still wants me to get good grades and she gets on my case whenever I eat like one cheeseburger. And that stuff doesn't even matter anymore.'
'Parents often hold expectations too high. That's something you may want to talk about with your mom. But do you really think it's too much to ask for you to study and eat well?'
I don't answer. He doesn't get it.
'What does matter now?' he asks.
I still don't answer.
Fiona and I meet up regularly to smoke. She insists on coming over at 4:20 p.m. I think it's silly, scheduling around a number.
'I like numbers,' she says. Her favorite is one. 'It stands alone.'
I don't follow. 'Two hundred and six,' I say. 'That's my lucky number.'
'I don't know. Dan Patrick used it on Sports Center once.' Now she doesn't follow. Lucky numbers are stupid anyway.
'Let's eat. I've got the munchies.'
I drive by Shuo's house, and he joins us as we search for an early bird dinner.
Shuo vetoes. 'It's not really chicken. They grow just the wings and the thighs, but not the rest of the chicken. That's why they call it KFC instead of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Cause chicken would be false advertising.'
'That's ridiculous,' I protest. 'It says chicken all over the menu. Six tender pieces of chicken. Fried Chicken. Chicken pot pie.' It's no use. Fiona breaks into laughter. I chuckle too.
We keep driving and find ourselves at the diner down the street.
'A tall glass of water,' Shuo requests when the waitress asks for drinks. Waters for everyone and a diet coke for Fiona as well. Shuo finishes his water immediately and pours mine into his glass as well. The waitress returns to see if we're ready to order. 'More water,' Shuo requests. She fills his glass and starts writing. I order a burger. Fiona will have an omelet. 'More water,' Shuo demands.
'He's still deciding,' I explain.
The waitress returns with another glass of water, this one larger than the last. 'Ready to order, sir?'
'Can I get a pitcher of water, please?'
She scowls. 'You have to order something off the menu.'
'Yes, yes, of course. Um... I'll have a grilled cheese... and a pitcher of water if that's possible.'
I lower my head and turn to Fiona. She's giggling quietly. I roll my eyes at Shuo.
'You want to go to a party Friday night?' she asks.
'Sure. I love to dance,' I tell her. 'I've been meaning to brush up on my backspin.' She looks puzzled. 'It's a break-dance move,' I explain. 'Actually, it's an easy one. I'm still a beginner, but I got a few moves down.'
Soon ten empty glasses sit on the table crowded around our finished plates. We drive Fiona home, and Shuo and I stop at a bar on the way back. I rack the billiard balls and he breaks. 'Did I ever tell you about the girl I played pool with here?' he asks. 'Drank me under the table. Literally.' I take my shot. Nothing falls. 'Blah, blah, blah, puke all over the cue ball.'
'What was with all that water you ordered at the diner?' I interrupt.
'What?' Pause. 'I was thirsty.'
The letter waits in my mailbox, and I don't know it. If I don't check my mail, I can go on like this, like nothing's wrong. And maybe it could last forever. But I check my mail, and so I learn I've been waitlisted at the State College. I haven't been admitted anywhere.
I stuff the letter back in its envelope, hoping the message gets lost in there. I swing by Fiona's place. We're going to a rave tonight.
The music blares all the way to the parking lot. Techno and black lights own the night, just as disco once did. Computer generated animations are projected onto one wall: swirls of red, spirals of purple, and smooth waves of blue. With each beat the images float farther into the depths of the screen and I myself float further away from my own reality. I hit the floor break-dancing. I'm in the zone. My feet are lightning. I'm catching every step just a moment before the music hits. Now I'm spinning faster than my eyes can track. I'm not even hearing the music any more. Just sensing the ground below, feeling the air rush by my ears, allowing the speed to enter me. The ecstasy begins to take effect. And now I'm just standing by the wall looking into Fiona's eyes, but the world is still spinning. She takes the rest of the X. We dance together. It's like drinking pure energy.
I crash on my bed around 5 a.m. I'm falling through the sewer tunnel again. But now swirls of red, spirals of purple, and waves of blue are projected against the walls of the tunnel. And this time I fly head first into the brick wall and crumple into a heap. I feel the pain in my eye sockets and at the back of my neck. The shock waves of the impact warp the tunnel like a Salvador Dali image. The walls bend in the distance, the metal dripping like water into a sink. On the near wall of the tunnel there's his clock with the hands falling off. I can see my reflection on the surface of the clock. I'm wearing a prison uniform, and my name tag reads Holden. I lurch back aghast. I shiver on the ground in the cold dark. I have no strength to stand. The air is heavier, almost suffocating. I reach my hand out to towards the wall. It touches something spherical and slimy. I draw it in closer to look at. Agh. A billiard ball covered in puke.
I'm not ready to face my parents. I take a drive around town. College isn't for me. How can I explain that to my dad? I hate all the deadlines. All that meaningless work. I keep going in circles. I stop on the third pass by my house. It's getting dark now. Mom is making dinner. 'I'm not going to college,' I blurt out. I brace myself for my dad's yelling.
'I think that's a good idea,' he encourages. My jaw drops.
'You'll still live with us,' Mom asks, her face brightening. I nod.
'I don't know if I ever told you this, but I took a couple of years off before I went to college,' Dad admits. 'Of course, back in those days not everybody was going to college. We had a different mindset when we were young. Protests and real community.' When he talks about his generation I always think of marijuana. My father's still talking. 'So I ran for my town's Board of Ed. Boy, did two years in the real world make me want to escape to college. But, I tell ya, looking back on it, that was one of the best times of my life. I was supporting myself and making a difference. And that's when I met your mom, too.'
'Is that also when you adopted me?' I snap back.
Dad looks like he's been kicked in the gut. His face reddens and he takes a deep breath. Mom's eyes are glued to the kitchen tiles.
'Were you ever planning on telling me?' I feel sick watching my mother's reaction, but I can't stop. I can't keep it in. The words are like acid burning through my skin from the inside.
'I know you're angry, son.' My father speaks in a quiet but steady voice. 'We were angry at first, too. Huntington's is an awful thing. But we can deal with this together.'
'I'm just talking about you not telling me I was adopted. Why does everybody have to make everything about this fucking disease?'
'We love you!' my mother bursts out. She runs toward me and wraps her arms around me, squeezing so hard my ribs ache.
'This is about your disease,' my dad says.
'Your biological father had it too,' Mom begins. 'But he didn't know until the symptoms hit. The doctors first thought it was schizophrenia. When they diagnosed it correctly he was already pretty far gone. They sent him to a facility where nurses took good care of him. It was the best thing to do at the time. But I never saw him again after that.' Tears are streaming down her cheek now. 'I gave birth to you a month later.'
'I had known your mother as a friend for many years. We got married when you were a year old.'
I feel numb. I can't speak. Mom dries her eyes with a tissue my dad hands to her. She senses it's time to change the subject.
'You'll come with us to church tomorrow morning?' I don't object. My mom asks orders not questions.
The sermon has lasted longer than an hour now. My parents sitting beside me appear to be captivated. I'm just captive. 'I'm going to the bathroom,' I whisper. Really I'm just going to walk around aimlessly for five minutes. I step out the back door and there's Shuo. 'Hey, you know where I can get some weed?' I ask.
'I always keep some on me. You want to light up right now?'
We end up sitting on the roof sharing a joint. My best church trip ever.
Shuo tells me he's considering working for his dad part-time. I don't tell him that Fiona hasn't been returning my calls. I recount the story of me puking all over the cue ball. We're laughing so hard we can't even remember what was so funny. People start to gather for chitchat on the field behind the church. It's been a lot longer than five minutes. I better go find my parents.
Dad spots me first. 'Where did you go? I thought you were just heading to the bathroom.'
'Do you smell something?' Mom asks.
Dad looks me in the eye. 'Your eyes - they're bloodshot. Have you been smoking marijuana?'
'This is unacceptable,' Mom continues. 'I will not have my son using drugs at church. It's sacrilege.'
I'm in no state to deny it.
'We're going home. And you're never going to touch marijuana again.'
I don't have a choice. I've got no other place to live. At home I flip channels on the television. There's that commercial again telling me that drugs support terrorism. Now I'm part of al-Qaeda. It's all bullshit. Even my nightmares are better than this reality. Even though it's still late afternoon I go to sleep.
I get out of bed at 3 a.m. I've slept on and off for almost 12 hours, and I can't sleep any more. I find Dad's car keys and start driving. I don't know where I'm going. I just know I want to keep going as fast and as far as I can go. I keep the windows open even though I'm wearing only a T-shirt, and the cold air makes my teeth chatter. It's a clear night, and the whole sky is visible. I get on the parkway and head north. In half an hour I'm at the state park in the mountains. I park by Lucky's Lookout. I stand there with goosebumps along my arms and a slight uncontrollable shiver, using only the body's natural defenses to stay warm. My traitorous body, shivering and chattering its teeth without my permission. It's a great view up there. Stars above, fields below. Straight below. It's a steep cliff. I stare down the wall of rock and imagine falling as I do in my dreams. I imagine being free of all weights and pressures. I imagine waking up from this life just before I crash into the ground.
I stare off into the distance. Some kids are having a party here. I can hear the faded hip-hop music coming from car speakers in the valley. They're teens, lucky to have found a spot to drink and not be disturbed by cops or parents. I used to be like them. I take a step back from the cliff onto a grassy area. The bass is loud enough that I can keep the beat, and I start break-dancing. First just footwork as the beat pulses through my veins. I continue to loosen up and now I'm spinning like a top. Only my elbows touch the ground as I spiral my legs outwards and suddenly I'm flipping onto my back and I get the greatest view of the stars. My body continues to dance, feeling the rhythm as if it's coming from inside me. Warm sweat pours through my T-shirt. My face, hot and red, glistens in the moonlight. My body obeys my will while my eyes are fixed on the night sky. An angel flashes through Orion's Belt. Instinctively, I wish on the shooting star. At this moment I'm not asking for more time. I only wish to be a break-dancer. Not even to be the greatest breaker ever. Just to enter another world when I break-dance. To enter at will that zone where my ears tell time, my body floats with fluid precision, and calm fills my mind.
Two months later my new job takes me back to this same park. I hold a drill steady as it enters the earth. Sweat collects on my brow. Construction's not a bad way to make a living. The summer sun gives me a good tan. And my arms are getting stronger; it really helps my break-dancing. I feel a tap on my shoulder. It's too loud to communicate in words. Shuo is standing there motioning to his watch. Break time. It's his first day. He's only working the summer to get some pocket cash for when school starts. His dad owns the construction company. That's how I got the job.
'It's good to have you around here,' I say. 'And since it's your first day, I thought we should celebrate.' I pass Shuo a joint. I haven't smoked in at least a month. But on a special occasion like this I don't see anything wrong with it. I make sure I'm clean for at least a week before all my break-dance performances. Breaking is too pure to mix with any artificial highs.
'Are you ever going to try college?' Shuo asks.
'Nah, I don't think so. This job is pretty good for me. I'm done by 5 p.m. every day and I can go practice break-dancing then.'
'What about living at home? I can't take it any more.'
'It's not so bad. My parents are pretty cool. They like seeing me every day. And I'm saving up some money, so I'll be able to afford my own apartment soon.'
'They still making you go to church every week?' He chuckles.
'No.' I grin. 'Mom's too busy babysitting my cousins, and Dad just watches golf all day.'
We chat about our graduating class the rest of the break.
'You want to play pool tonight?' he asks.
'Actually I'm starting physical therapy today. The doctor thinks it's a good idea to work on my coordination to protect myself against early onset of the Huntington's. I figure building up some muscle will help my break-dancing too.'
'And I have Independence practice tonight. Our big summer show is July 4th. You have to come,' I tell him.
'Of course. I wouldn't miss seeing your stage debut.'
'So,' I ask, 'you want to play pool tomorrow night?'
'Only if you want to get a beating.'
My break-dance routine opens the Independence performance. I steel my nerves enough to stop tapping my foot against the stage. Then the curtain opens, and the lights hit me. They're blinding. I can't see where the stage ends and the audience begins. I freeze. I know the show must go on. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. And now the music blindsides me. The familiar beat lights up my mind, and though my eyes are still closed, I can see every inch of the stage in my memory. My body obeys, dropping to the floor on count two and popping back up three beats later. The room spins about my elbow, a hinge attaching my floating body to the anchor of the stage. For days I have practiced this routine, ingraining it in my memory and making it mine. But now, as I lead into my big finish, I break from habit. And before I realize what I've done, I'm creating new moves: I tuck my arms around my chest as the music builds to a crescendo, and then my body somersaults into the air and lands in a split. The peaceful rhythm of the snare drum fades behind the mounting cacophony of countless pairs of hands smacking together. I can't see them, but Mom and Dad stand in the front row full of pride.
Independence Day is my favorite holiday. I love fireworks. I once asked my dad why fireworks couldn't last forever. They do, he replied. They're called light bulbs. I look up at the sky, and I'm charmed by something more exciting than a light bulb. For a brief instant a tiny ball of fire destined to fall lights up the heavens.