Katie can’t remember a time when she wasn’t tired. The days are shrouded in a medicinal haze. She slowly opens her eyes to let in just enough light to guess the time of day. There is enough light streaming in to tell her it is still daytime and the shadow on the wall tells her it is afternoon.
The board on the wall reads “Izzie.” She smiles, she likes Izzie. That is one of her favorite nurses.
Slowly she lifts her hand up to feel the top of her head. Every motion is slow and deliberate because she lacks the strength to move quickly. She feels the cloth covering her bald head and makes sure it is securely in place.
Katie has a love/hate relationship with head coverings. Sometimes they are scarves her mom brings and sometimes it is bandanas she thinks are cute. She hates them because they are the universal signal for cancer patient. On the few times she has had the strength to get out of bed she knows that everyone looking at her knows that she is going through chemotherapy. She doesn’t mind their concern it is their pity she hates.
The looks she gets when she doesn’t wear them are the worst. People look at her like she has already given up. It is infuriating. Even at her worst, a woman is expected to be presentable. A man with a bald head could be doing it for fashion. If people find out he has cancer he is commended for taking it head on, a woman with a bald head is an anomaly and should be looked at with distain or pity.
At least the scarves are comfortable and the bandanas bring a little bit of whimsy to her otherwise dreary days.
“It’s teddy bears,” he says from outside her field of view.
Slowly Katie opens her eyes a little more and turns her head. Drew gets up from the chair and walks to her bedside. Gingerly, as he always does, he checks her IV as picks up her hand.
“Teddy bears,” she echoes. That tells her the day of the week. It is the only way she has of tracking the days in her hospital bed. She has lost track of how long she has been here, or even her previous life. But that is the past. The only thing in her future is a slow lingering death so she is just living day by day. Knowing what day today is makes her feel better.
“Would you like some ice chips?”
Katie nods, noting that he doesn’t have to leave the room. She wonders how many times the ice has melted and he has gone to refill the container so she would have fresh ice when she finally woke up.
“Teddy bear Tuesday,” a voice says from the doorway.
“Doctor Levy,” Katie says without turning. “Isn’t it late for rounds?”
“Yes,” he states, “Yes it is, but I wanted to talk to you about something else.”
“Hi doc,” Drew says cheerfully.
“She say yes yet?”
“Nope, but I am wearing her down.”
“I am not going to marry you,” Katie says weakly but firmly. “I will just make you a widower in a few months.”
“I don’t care,” Drew says quietly but just as firmly, “I love you.”
Katie doesn’t have the strength to rehash the same discussion they always have and she really doesn’t want to do it in front of the doctor. She has tried to get him to go live his life but he stays dutifully by her side. She loves him and wants nothing more than to have him by her side but watching him watch her die kills her inside.
“I have something to talk to you about,” Doctor Levy says to changing the subject.
“Good news I hope,” Katie says.
“As you know, we have reached the end of treatments for you,” Levy says gravely. “Your cancer is very aggressive and it is too extensive. There isn’t anything else I can do. But there is a doctor that thinks he might have an answer.”
That little glimmer of hope causes Katie to turn and that’s when she sees a man in a lab coat shadowing Dr. Levy.
“I am doctor Harper,” he says stepping up extending his hand.
“Katie,” she says summoning the strength to sit up.
“I have heard about your case and I think my research can help.”
“Are you an oncologist?”
“No,” Harper says, “I am a geneticist.”
“I don’t understand,” Drew says, “How will genetics cure her cancer?”
“I don’t want to cure it,” Harper says smiling, “I want to clone it.”
“What we have been doing,” Dr. Harper explains, “is look at cancer as a disease. We attack it as something foreign, something wrong with the body instead of viewing it as an animal of its own. That is how I am looking at it.
“Cancer spreads because one of the primary functions of an animal is to reproduce. Some cancers are benign, they find a way to reach equilibrium with the host body and don’t do any harm. That is like in the natural world where animals don’t breed past their resources. Both their space and available food. An aggressive cancer is like an invasive species. It spreads everywhere, destroying everything in its path. The invasive species kills the environment it is in and then starves and dies.
“Your cancer is alive but it is stupid because it doesn’t understand that in trying to find healthy tissue to live it is killing you. I want to give it a new home.”
“I’m on a lot of pain meds so I am not sure if that is the smartest or dumbest thing I have ever heard,” Katie says sleepily.
“I get that a lot,” Dr. Harper smiles.
“How does it work,” Drew asks.
“Glad you asked,” Harper says enthusiastically’ “It is actually really cool.”
He steps over to the board on the wall and starts drawing, “First we take a set of donated organs. More specifically a set of lungs and a heart.”
As he draws a set of lungs and a heart on the board Drew asks, “You are giving a throwing away a good set of organs to this experiment?”
“Oh no,” Harper says without stopping, “that would be irresponsible. But there are people that are organ donors that have organs that can’t be used for some reason. They don’t have to be healthy, just healthy enough.”
He then draws a line between the two as he continues, “we won’t give it a brain, but we do need some higher functions so there will be a part of a brain stem connecting the organs. We will be stimulating the heart with electrical pulses and have a tube healing the lungs breathe. What I want to see is if the invasive species can take over the organs and spark the higher functions to make the organs work on their own.”
“So it is just going to be a couple organs and a part of a spine,” Katie asks trying to visualize from the picture.
“That is just the mechanics in a nutshell,” Harper explains. He then takes the marker and starts to furiously scribble over his drawing, “We will encase it all in a generated tissue infused with a whole lot of stem cells. It will be a tempting environment for the invaders to and I hope to encourage the cells to reproduce into there instead of Katie’s body.”
“How will you do that,” Katie asks.
“Well,” Harps starts sheepishly, “we are going to have to connect you to it.”
“You want to hook me up to this… this… flesh abomination?”
Dr. Harper looks at her with the eyes of a man who has heard this reaction. It is not pleasant and the idea is disturbing but he thinks it has a real chance. And in Katie’s case, it is her only chance. Without a miracle, she will be dead within weeks.
Cautiously, he explains to the room the reality of the situation and exactly how the procedure works. It will not be easy and it won’t be pleasant, but it is her only hope.
Dr. Levy, who has been quiet the entire time, silently nods in the background.
Katie absent mindedly reaches for Drew’s hand as he reaches out for her’s. She grips his hand as tight as her weak body can as he strokes her hand with his free one.
Harper stays in the room to answer every question they have, patiently repeating an answer that Katie asked more than once. He stays until the room goes dark from the setting sun and long after Levy has left to tend to other patients. After he has exhausted all their questions he asks if she wants to consent to the procedure.
Katie softly nods.
“I need to you say it,” Harper says firmly.
Katie slowly opens her eyes to let in enough light to know what time of day it is. The bright light above is throwing her off. It makes her think that she is outside but the walls are cloaked in shadow.
“Doctor, she is awake,” a voice says in the shadows.
Dr. Levy steps to the bed by her head.
“Are you in any pain,” he asks softly.
She tries to sit up and is surprise at how easy it is. Everything outside of a few feet is still blurry to her but she can look up and down her own body. She is used to being hooked up to machines but the IV on her left arm is not connected to anything next to the operating table she is on. Black liquid in it flows from her arm out into the air and toward another operating table.
Levy watches her movements and says, “It is a shocking sight to see.”
Nothing she was told prepared her for what her eyes focus on. She is expecting a lump of flesh hooked to machines, but instead she sees a black mass that is animated and moving. It reminds her of the tar baby from the Briar Rabbit books or the oil monster from Fern Gully. There are two distinct lumps, the smaller one on top of the larger one. What anyone would recognize as a body and head. They are pulsing and moving and it is too disturbing for her to look at.
Absentmindedly she feels her head.
“They are salmon,” Levy says.
“Fishy Friday,” she says putting her head back on the pillow.
“Oh, she is awake,” Dr. Harper says. He walks over to her and says, “Sorry, it seems that it is pulling some of the anesthesia and pain killers with it and we can’t legally give you any more.”
“It’s not so bad,” she says softly, “I can handle it.”
“She’s a trooper,” Dr. Levy adds.
“I think we are getting close,” Dr. Harper says looking at the tube between the two tables.
When he sees blood passing through the tube his expression changes.
“OK, we’re good team,” he barks. The staff lurking in the shadows move into action.
A nurse deftly disconnects Katie from the mass, another hands Dr. Harper a scalpel from a nearby tray, and the doctor takes a sample from the growing mass.
Katie watches with fascination as they work. Untethered to the mass she is intrigued with its progress. The two lumps have separated but connected by a thick strand of a neck.
“Hit it,” Dr. Harper says.
The electric jolt shocks the mass but the unexpected sound startles Katie. As the smell of ozone fills the air Dr. Harper smiles, “Hit is again.”
The loud gurgle is as surprising as it is disturbing. A hole has opened in the top lump that must be connected to the artificially breathing lungs.
“Disconnect everything,” Dr. Harper says with his eyes locked on the evolving mass.
Dr. Levy can’t look away. His medical curiosity is piqued but he finds it disconcerting to think that they are giving life to the thing he has spent his career fighting. He doesn’t know what they have unleashed and hopes that this will be good for the world and not a Pandora’s Box.
“That’s it,” Katie asks, “Is that my cancer?”
“We won’t know until we run some tests,” Dr. Harper says never taking his eyes on his creation, “but it seems that way.”
“Is that all of it?”
“The only cancer left is what has already been killed by the chemo.”
“This is the thing that has been killing me?”
Dr. Harper can’t take his eyes away from his creation. His research was right, his medicine was sound and now he has done it. He is a revolutionary scientist and the world is literally about to open for him. All the people that laughed at him will now be fighting each other to work with him. But he has already forgotten them all. The only one that matters is Levy, the one doctor that actually listened. He actually looked at the research. This is his dream come true.
“This is the reason I wouldn’t marry Drew?”
“I suppose so,” Dr. Harper said not really knowing what she is talking about and not really listening. This is like watching your child take his first step, say his first word, and eat solid foods all in the same day.
Everyone is fixated on the black mass.
“Is it breathing,” a nurse asks from the darkness.
Katie can’t take her eyes off it. Her curiosity has morphed to anger and becomes a red-hot rage. Everyone is so transfixed that no one has noticed that Katie has gotten out of her bed, not even her. She doesn’t even know what she is doing until her hands are wrapped about what looks like a throat on the beast.
The monstrosity gives a short cough and starts to struggle. A black tendril shoot out from the body and wraps around one of her arms.
“Fascinating,” Dr. Harper whispers to himself. “It has a self-preservation instinct.”
Katie is still weak from weeks of chemotherapy and pain killers. She is afraid her strength will fail but she is determined. She squeezes tighter with her right hand and reaches out with her left. Only taking her eyes off for a moment she looks to the tray of sterilized surgical instruments. Gaining purchase on the largest scalpel she sees she starts wildly stabbing at the cancer beast fighting against her.
“No,” Dr. Levy says reaching to stop her.
Dr. Harper gently puts his hand on his colleague’s shoulder. “It’s fine,” he says, “she needs to do this.”
“But your research,” Levy exclaims.
“It is OK,” Harper says quietly so not to disturb Katie in her fury, “the science has been proven, I will do this again.”
“Besides,” he says looking at Katie extract justice, “I never planned to let them live. They were always meant to die.”
Katie feels like she finally gets to engage in the fight for her life. Before it was doctors poking and prodding but this is her doing something to combat the thing that was killing her. She has always wanted to do something, she has dreamed about being able to kill it. And now, finally, it has a body, and more importantly a throat she can wrap her fingers around. There is no way she is giving up.
With one hand she stabs at it over and over again. The surface of the mass is surprisingly solid. From the appearance she expected it to be like jello. She forgot about the artificial tissue. It has made it difficult to stab it right in the heart the first strike. But lacking ribs it isn’t able to slow her down from puncturing the lungs.
Two sockets have appeared that look like they could be eyes and Katie stares into them as she plunges the scalpel into the chest again and again. The tendril wrapped around her right arms starts to slacken. It is losing its grip.
That only encourages Katie to redouble her efforts. She stabs deep into the chest. So deep her hand disappears into the cavity. With some resistance, she pulls it back out and slams it into the center of the head.
And with that, the thing that has been killing Katie dies by her hand.
Carly can’t remember the last time she didn’t feel tired. She knows there was a time when she was a typical fourth-grader and running around but those days seem like a distant memory now. Her favorite game now is seeing how long she can keep her eyes open before the meds make her too tired to stay awake. When she finally feels strong enough to look around she sees her mother talking to a new doctor outside the door.
“Carly,” her mother asks, “how you feeling baby?”
“Fine,” she croaks.
“There is someone here to talk to you.”
“No,” Katie says entering the room, “I want to talk to you.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m like you,” Katie says touching the bandana on her head, “or I was.”
Carly touches her bandana like it is a silent signal of the club only cancer patients can join.
“I am so used to wearing them it seems weird not to now,” Katie continues pulling at the bandana with little skulls on it to reveal her short hair.
“Who is my mom talking to?”
“A new doctor, he has a new procedure that will help you get better.”
“Will it cure my cancer,” Carly asks full of hope.
“Nope,” Katie smiles, “We are going to kill it.”
“Yup, and if you are strong enough you can come to my wedding,” Katie says showing off her ring.