The tingling in her arm came and went. It wasn’t painful or even uncomfortable and when it returned, it was more of an annoyance than anything else. Radiating from her shoulder to her fingertips, she assumed it was simply a crick in her neck or a pinched nerve — the result of yet another Saturday night spent watching TV and falling asleep on the couch. It was nothing new and easy to ignore, and as a legion of harried waiters scurried around her, she gazed out with a frustrated sigh.
Filled with patrons hungry for brunch, the restaurant was chaotic and yet oddly quiet. The late, Easter morning sun had just broken through the clouds and its beams descended in moted strands to shimmer on white linens and reflect off crystal beakers. Dishes chimed against silverware, the faint clatter of rolling dessert carts echoed and the rings and beeps of smartphones pealed from every crowded table and every occupied corner.
She reasoned a million bits of information were coursing between so many devices. A thousand pictures, songs and messages all finding homes with a finger tap or swipe across a glass screen. Ideas were percolating, adventures were shared, comments were laughed at and rendezvous planned but with her phone resting uncharged and impotent in her handbag, there wasn’t a single note, pixel or character for her. Happiness and contentment surrounded her but while everyone else reveled in connected delectation, she felt abandoned and invisible.
Just thinking about how much she was missing caused a dull throb to rise from behind her left temple. It wasn’t quite a headache but it was spreading and she considered asking the waiter for an aspirin. She knew he’d have at least a dozen to spare because she’d worked in a restaurant before and a bottle of aspirin had been a requirement there, a necessity for the awful tips and the uncompromising patrons.
She talked herself out of this idea however, part of her terrified of becoming one of those customers, part of her unwilling to seem burdensome or needy or petulant. So, too embarrassed to clear her throat or make the slightest gesture, she cringed from the frenetic staff and surreptitiously glared at her father and two brothers, their attentions locked upon the rectangular devices in their hands, their eyes consuming the gigabytes of vital information forever lost to her.And quietly fuming as her family browsed and surfed, she wondered whether they’d answer if she interrupted their digital musings, wondered what would happen if she broke the silence that had been present from the instant she’d taken her seat.
Her mouth dried at the mere thought of it. There would probably be inattentive snorts or halfhearted platitudes. She imagined a dismissive congratulation on her new secretarial job or a sneering inquiry whether she had a boyfriend yet. From the furrow of their brows, there was a good chance they’d be upset if she spoke up but desperate to end the alienated boredom, she decided to try anyway. Maybe she could ease into it by commenting on the fact she still didn’t have a water glass or menu. She could also inquire about their careers or their new cars or their new girlfriends or what their vacation plans were.
Any of those were safe and non-confrontational, and she took a deep breath.
Her stomach tightened, her pulse quickened but when she went to speak, nothing happened.
Her lips remained shut, her voice box seemed frozen and trying to reach up, she discovered she couldn’t move her arm. She next tried to stand, then to lean forward and finally,she attempted to shift in her chair but not one of her limbs budged. She was stuck with only her eyes working and all they could do was scan her family or the hungry customers behind them.
A faint numbness began to seep from inside her toes and remembering the prickling in her arm, the words “stroke” and “aneurysm” came to mind. Panic coursed through her every muscle and the sound of her racing heart fulminated in her ears. Barely thirty, she exercised and tried to eat well and she was positive catastrophic seizures didn’t happen to people like her.
They happened to the elderly and out-of-shape but never to a person like her. But the more she tried to speak, the more doubtful she became and she was again trying to lift her arm when she noticed her left hand.
Resting with the palm on the table, something was different about it. She didn’t know what it was at first but after a long stare, she realized the tip of her index finger had vanished.
She blinked and blinked in an attempt to expel this obvious hallucination but instead of her finger returning to its normal shape, she watched the nail and then the entire joint disappear.
There was no blood or pain and, studying the absent portion of her digit, she was sure this couldn’t be real. For, if it wasn’t a hallucination, she would’ve been screaming in agony.
She looked toward her brother, Gerard.
He was sitting directly across from her with his plump hand frozen in mid-tap above his phone. Slouched with his head bent and a few strands of hair dangling like tendrils from his fleeting hairline, she could barely make out the rise and fall of his cheeks as he agonized over which word to type. Growing up, his need to be accurate had driven her crazy but he’d become the regional vice president of a bank because of it and she hoped that annoying trait would be her salvation today. And though they’d never been close, she knew he’d protect her. He was her older brother after all and he was supposed to be there for her. It wasn’t important if he’d ignored her when they were kids or they’d only talked during the holidays for the last twelve years. None of those things mattered anymore because if she were truly hallucinating, the stroke had to be serious and she pleaded and commanded in a voiceless scream for him to glance up.
But instead of coming to her rescue, he nodded at his phone and grunted.
Her left pinky was now missing and she desperately tried to get the attention of someone else in her family. Again, she wordlessly pleaded and commanded but not one of them noticed her. Gerard let out another grunt while her father pursed his lips, the week’s stock indices bouncing between the lenses of his steel-rimmed glasses and the screen of his mobile device.
Her other brother, Clarence also squinted at his phone, his head bobbing and his thin,golden brows lifted high upon his protruding forehead. A smile was starting to break on the young man’s narrow mouth and she could tell he was preparing to let loose an inappropriate comment of some sort. The family comedian, his sense of humor was notorious for causing fights during the holidays and she nervously watched his face twist into an impish grin. Yes, a joke was definitely coming. It would probably be a remark about the overtime he was getting since becoming a partner in his law firm or Gerard’s weight or their father’s recent market losses and,when he looked up to discover if anyone laughed, she’d be saved.
But not a syllable came; he merely bit his lip and went back to typing.
“Nice!” proclaimed Gerard with another nod and a flare of his wide nostrils.
The outburst thundered and reverberated through the high, arched ceilings. It swallowed every other sound in the large room and if she could move, it would’ve made her jump. It’d been exactly what she’d been hoping for and, losing the feeling in her right foot, she searched the restaurant for any expression of surprise or annoyance.
By the entrance, the receptionist leaned in front of her monitor, nibbling a stylus and fussing with her hair. Before her desk, a line of people stretched almost to the front door,smirking or frowning at whatever they’d read from their screens. To the left, a girl took a picture of what appeared to be coffee cake. A boy was playing a video game on his tablet to the right and nearby, a computer-generated voice announced the cholesterol count for Eggs Benedict.
She studied the distracted faces and bent heads, occasionally pausing upon people eating their food between swipes and taps. She followed waiters in green aprons and bussers in rolledup sleeves but her brother’s comment failed to garner a single reaction.
“Sooner-or-later they have to notice,” she reassured herself. “All I need is for one person to turn their head.”
With the sun reflecting off mirrored alcoves and Carrara tiles, her eyes began to hurt and the pain in her temples worsened. Shapes blurred and paled as if seen through a gossamer shroud and a chill made its way across her. More of her body was going numb and she wished she could be in the morning’s light because there it was warm and she wouldn’t have been so easy to miss.
She went on searching the crowd and she didn’t notice the approaching waiter until he ran into her and knocked her chair out from the table. He didn’t stop however, didn’t turn or apologize. He merely whimpered and continued along his swaying path beneath the tall ceilings and between the pulsating, mechanical echoes.
Suddenly, both her legs from the knees down faded into nothingness.
Her father adjusted his bifocals and she stared at him imploringly. At any second, she was convinced he’d level his clear blue gaze toward her. With the slightest change of position — a stretch, a yawn, a wayward blink or shift — this nightmare would be done. She pictured his gaunt, hawkish face turning toward her and his pointed jaw flexing. He might hesitate at first bu tonce he realized what was happening, his lean, angled frame would rush forward before she knew it. His arms would embrace her and she’d hear his deep voice call out in a rare tone of concern and love.
But, like the rest of her family, her father didn’t move; he simply went back to scrolling over market reports.
“What are you doing?” she pleaded. “Those stocks are a week old! Do something else for once. Please, before it’s too late!”
And then, just after her right hand vanished, it happened.
Two tables away, she was positive that a man was looking in her direction. He had an oddly comical smile on his face and the protruding gray strands of his thick, obtrusive brows came together and lifted into a peak of curiosity. He leaned forward and squinted. He brought up a set of delicate fingers and scratched the tip of his straight nose and stroked his professionally trimmed mustache. She didn’t know why exactly but he had a successful, educated air to him.Perhaps it was his tailored suit or his near-perfect posture or the casual way he’d been reclining in his seat but from having temped at a medical office three years ago, she just knew he was a doctor.
“He has to be,” she told herself. “Maybe he’s even a surgeon. From where he is, he can easily diagnose the signs of a stroke. Any second he’ll stand up and he’ll shout orders and the paramedics will take me to a hospital. I’ll be okay once I get there. Yes, I’m going to be fine and maybe it’s not too late. Maybe I’ve caught it early enough and the damage won’t be too bad.Maybe this is temporary and I won’t be crippled or bedridden. With enough work, maybe I can walk without crutches or anything.”
He frowned and her heart quivered and her body tingled. The blood careening inside her temples made the room pulse and everything seemed to tremble.
It was only a matter of time now but in the middle of her thankful prayer, the maître d’ came up, cleared his throat and whispered into the man’s ear. And with a blink, her savior lifted his head, answered with a scornful wave and reached for the tablet at his side.
She wanted to weep but the tears wouldn’t come. In fact, it was getting harder and harder to control her eyes and she almost missed her entire left arm become empty air. Her throat constricted in anguish and it was at this point, surrounded by an inattentive throng and looking at her sleeve fall against her body, that she began to consider the impossible.
Maybe this wasn’t a hallucination and perhaps there was no stroke or seizure.
Perhaps she really was disappearing.
Maybe her right hand, her entire left arm and her calves were all forever lost and none of them were coming back. Maybe she couldn’t move because the part of her brain that controlled such things had gone first and maybe she couldn’t speak because her vocal chords had been next.And while everyone there gleefully perused their dull texts, boring photos and mediocre songs,she started to ponder how much more she’d have to lose before none of her was left, how fast it would take for her to become nothing.
“No,” she told herself. “Don’t be stupid. It’s the stroke talking. You’re sick and you need help. That’s all. When the waiter comes, he’ll see. He’ll ask what I want and when I don’t answer, everyone will notice I’m in trouble. I just have to hold on.”
Suddenly, the restaurant patrons began to spin out of her field of vision. Her left thigh had vanished and her body canted and slid from the chair to the parquet floor under the table. The ceiling flashed in front of her and she came to rest where the flat area of her left arm had once connected to her shoulder. Her head struck the ground in a quiet thump but there was no pain or discomfort, no awareness of bruises rising or any of her remaining bones breaking.
Before her were the motionless legs and crossed ankles of her family. One of Clarence’s shoelaces had become untied, a square of toilet paper clung to Gerard’s heel and dust bunnies shuddered amid their hiding places in minute, vibratory increments. She was certain someone would help now. It was impossible to miss a person falling to the ground. Yet not an ankle uncrossed or a leg shifted and when she heard the place setting above her being removed, she again considered the possibility of her ultimate dissolution.
Still, it was almost peaceful where she was. The shadows muted the sting in her temples and the scent of floor cleaner filled her nostrils. A piny, cheap brand, it was familiar because it was the same kind they’d used at the housecleaning job she’d worked last year.
Then her chair was pushed in and her torso rolled deeper beneath the table.
She came to rest face down. Another stab of pain ricocheted through her head and once it passed, she realized her time was short. There wasn’t much of her body left and she regretted not speaking to her family when she’d had the chance. It’d only been a few moments since they’d been right in front of her and she had so many years of pointless silence to make up for. They’d literally heard none of the stories of her life but when she was trying to imagine them listening, it dawned on her that she couldn’t remember her father or her brother’s names.
Within a few more seconds their faces became difficult to picture. She struggled to find a single memory of them — what it was like growing up together, whether her brothers had teased her or she’d teased them, whether they’d shared private jokes . . . whether they’d ever been friends. There was an impression of her older brother being a champion wrestler and the most popular boy in their high school. Another fading recollection came of the other one being the valedictorian and president of the class. None of it was clear though and she became confused.Had she been the popular member of the family and them the poor losers who spent their teenage years friendless and dateless? Had she been a good, consoling sister? Had they shared their humiliations with her? Had they felt the shame of being the last picked in gym or what it was like never to be chosen when they raised their hand?
Her face dropped to the ground and the scents of the room vanished: the frying bacon and sausage, the lingering wafts of sweet desserts, the steaming coffee, the odor of disinfectant. Her nose was gone and the smooth flooring brushed against her lashes and dust particles swirled into her eyes. They stung and burned but she couldn’t summon any tears to wash them away.
Her ears were the next to go. Sounds became distant and muffled, and buried in silence,the thoughts of her brothers and father dimmed.
Soon, her name was gone as well. She couldn’t picture her face, couldn’t recall where she was or how she’d gotten to this serene, featureless spot. Her heart was pounding but she didn’t know why and it wasn’t long until she gave into the darkness and the solitude. Hidden and anonymous, she began to feel safe and protected for the first time in her life. Memories and images turned gray and muddy, and she struggled to hold on to them. Somewhere there was a tiny apartment void of knickknacks and haunted by a perpetual chill. There were photo albums without any pictures, an email account with no messages and a Facebook page without a single follower. There were conversations listened to from behind walls and celebrations observed from an open window and the echoes of lonely sobs and distant laughter half-heard. But even those things vanished and a rasping sigh later, she was left wondering about the endless black fog before her, the emptiness she sensed in every direction and why she was . . . why she was . . .Why she—
Born in Colorado, J. Paul Ross is a Phi Alpha Theta graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarion, The MacGuffin and Serving House Journal. Currently, he is working on a novel set along the Pan-American Highway.