The nurse bustled in on her morning rounds.
Good morning Mister Hersh,” she said with measured cheer. “How are we feeling today?”
“Morning nurse,” Hersh replied softly.
“Good morning, I’m fine,” Hersh’s cancer said brightly. The nurse couldn’t hear it speak, of course.
When the cancer had started to speak, Hersh had often replied out loud. He soon discovered that no one else heard the voice. Now, he just spoke to it with his mind.
The cancer hadn’t quite caught on though, it still responded to voices that never answered back to it.
“Did you sleep well?” the Nurse asked.
She measured out Hersh’s drugs in a little paper cup.
“These will make you feel better,” she told him.
They didn’t. They didn’t actually dull the pain. What they seemed to do was to fuzz his mind. Make him a little less cognizant, a little less lucid. Less able to appreciate pain and nausea.
Hersh swallowed the pills, intimately conscious of his tongue moving in his mouth, of his throat gulping.
He wallowed from the glass of water that the nurse handed him.
The cancer watched these procedures with rapt interest.
After the nurse left, he laid back in the hospital bed.
“So,” asked the cancer, “what are we going to be doing today?”
“I haven’t decided,” Hersh replied. “Maybe we’ll go horseback riding, or fly a plane.”
“Cool,” the cancer replied enthusiastically.
Hersh suspected that the cancer had no idea what he was talking about. Sometimes, it seemed to have little grasp of the external world. But that was all right, it was always enthusiastic.
Sometimes Hersh thought his cancer had more life than he did.
It had little grasp of irony, and except when he felt it rummaging in his memories, it only heard what he spoke to it, or spoke aloud. He could tell it anything.
It couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t, read his mind.
“Or we could watch television?”
“Sesame Street!” squeaked his cancer.
But it was too late for that, so they watched game shows.
Hersh lay in the hospital bed, with his cancer, watching the Wheel of Fortune.
Every now and then it would ask a question. It seemed to have trouble understanding Vanna White’s role. Hersh explained things as best he could.
His cancer seemed to prefer Jeopardy, but that wouldn’t be on for another hour.
* * *
Perhaps it was the drugs that constantly fogged his mind, but he couldn’t quite remember when his cancer had started talking to him.
He had, until his illness, lived a solitary and unexceptional life of quiet reserve. It had never really bothered him. He’d grown older as his friends settled down and married and drifted away. He would receive cards denoting the birth of children, and would methodically put them in the same box he kept the condolences cards from his parents’ funerals.
It was not an exciting existence, but it hadn’t been unpleasant.
Until one morning when he found himself helplessly, spastically coughing blood into the toilet.
Then his spare and Spartan existence had become intolerable. He’d faced his illness alone for a while, discovering his life was a void. Finally he’d checked into the hospital.
A few people sent cards. His office sent flowers.
Hersh sat in the hospital bed and watched television. He did crossword puzzles and read magazines and played solitaire. The nurses bustled around him with distracted impersonal efficiency.
His life boiled down to time killing exercises sitting alone in a room in a fog of drugs and pain as the cancer took over his life.
He didn’t remember when he’d started talking to it.
Why shouldn’t he talk to it?
People talked to their cats, their plants, to the people and things in their lives. He’d never had cats or plants, never really had anything to talk to. Why shouldn’t he talk to it?
What else was there left for him to talk to?
It had slipped unbidden into his life, like an unwanted guest, slowly wrecking the home it visited.
All he knew, really, was that he had been talking to it for such a long time that he hadn’t been at all surprised when it started talking to him.
* * *
They were sitting out in the Hospital gardens, Hersh and his Doctor. The staff thought it was good for the patients to get some fresh air once in a while.
Hersh sat in the Gomers area, old men and terminal patients who sat quietly where they had been placed. Over on the other side of the gardens, he could hear children playing.
The cancer, fascinated, wanted him to go over there.
Hersh sat where he was.
“I hear voices,” Hersh told the Doctor.
“Whose?” the cancer asked, fascinated.
“My cancer,” Hersh told the Doctor, “I think it’s talking to me.”
“I am talking to you,” the cancer said, mildly offended.
The Doctor stared at Hersh with mild surprise. He was a short young man with a head of curly hair. He was much younger than Hersh, which made it difficult for him to be authoritative. He compensated with a restrained playfulness.
“What does it say?”
“I dunno,” Hersh gestured vaguely. “We talk about television and stuff.”
“Uh huh,” said the Doctor, “so it’s not telling you that you’re the messiah or anything like that?”
Hersh shook his head.
“It isn’t suggesting that you kill your Doctor?” There was a trace of a smile in the Doctor’s eyes.
“I wouldn’t,” the cancer said, indignant.
“No,” Hersh admitted, smiling a little.
“Well, that’s something anyway,” the Doctor said cheerily. He examined his chart. “Have you ever had auditory hallucinations before?”
“What’s that?” the cancer piped. Hersh ignored it. Sometimes, if he left it alone, it seemed able to figure things out for itself, as if it was rummaging in the back of his brain for information.
“Anyone in your family ever been diagnosed with schizophrenia or psychosis of any sort?”
“You ever experimented with drugs when you were young? Strong ones like LSD, Peyote, mushrooms?”
“Grass?” the cancer asked confused. An image of golf course greens drifted through his mind.
“I’ll explain later,” Hersh told it.
“Grass wouldn’t do it.” The Doctor shook his head. “Any childhood traumas?”
“Have you ever had any other strange experiences? Reincarnation flashbacks? Religious experiences? Alien abductions? Ever seen a ghost?”
“No. None of that.”
“So,” said the Doctor, “what you’re saying is that you’re perfectly normal, except that you have cancer and it’s talking to you.”
“Is that possible?”
The Doctor shrugged.
“Lots of people wind up hearing voices, for one reason or another. It’s just one part of the brain talking to the other, and because of injury or illness it sounds like someone else.
“More likely it’s a side effect of the medication, or something else entirely.”
The Doctor gave the ghost of an impish smile.
“But you never know. They’ve found tumors that had developed hair and teeth.”
“Really?” the cancer asked, fascinated.
“I didn’t know that,” Hersh said, “I thought it was just… a growth, like a boil or something.”
“Basically, cancers are just cells gone wild. But they’re still cells that contain all your DNA, your biological map for everything. So, sometimes you get cancers that seem to form complicated structures, like hair or teeth.”
“Neat,” said the cancer. Hersh could tell that it was impressed.
“But it’s almost always malformed and unusable. It’s rogue cells multiplying and dying, throwing out random bits of DNA instruction.”
“It could develop a brain then?” Hersh asked.
“The idea of cancer cells assembling into something as complex as a thinking organ is so improbable it’s ludicrous. It’s like a handful of metal shavings assembling themselves into a Rolex.
“I mean, it’s just barely remotely possible, but I doubt it.” The Doctor smiled again. “Remember: When in doubt, go with the simpler explanation.”
“So what do I do?” Hersh asked.
“About the voices?” the Doctor replied. “Well, as long as they aren’t telling you that you can fly, or that you should shoot the hospital staff, I wouldn’t worry about it.
“We can deal with it later. Right now, we should be concerned with saving your life.”
“Okay,” Hersh said.
He watched the Doctor walk off.
“He’s nice,” said the cancer, “I like him.”
* * *
Later on, they were doing a crossword together.
The cancer wasn’t very good at it, it had a tendency to invent words, as if its experience encompassed foreign dimensions. But once in a while, he could feel it shuffle through his memories and dredge up a correct answer that had eluded Hersh. So, he let it play.
The cancer asked a question.
“Hey Dad,” it said.
“Hmmm,” Hersh mumbled out loud.
“What did the Doctor mean when he talked about saving your life?”
Odd question, Hersh thought to himself.
“It means I’m dying,” he told the cancer.
SHOCK! The cancer was silenced for an instance. Its palpable surprise and horror radiated through him.
“Oh Dad,” it whispered in his mind, “what’s happening to you?”
“You are,” he told it.
“You’re killing me.”
There was a sudden violence inside him, as if his memories were thrown open, desperately leaved through for terrible corroboration.
Inside, he felt it rushing away, withdrawing in on itself.
Hersh waited a moment. It’s now familiar presence was absent from his mind.
“You there?” he asked experimentally.
After a while, Hersh went back to his crossword puzzle, though he didn’t do nearly as well.
After that, he went to sleep.
* * *
Hersh had a dream. In it, the cancer came to him, all red and bashful, and it spoke.
“Uh… Hello Dad,” it said. “Listen, I’ve been doing some looking around, and you’re right… about… it.”
It seemed to wring its metaphorical hands in frustration.
“I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you. I never meant for you to suffer. I just never realized…
“I mean, I was young and growing and growing and growing and I just figured that nothing bad would ever happen. You know how it is? You’re young and growing and you assume that everything will last forever, that the world will be infinite? You don’t realize that there are limits, or what happens when you press those limits.
“I feel terrible, I feel awful. I’m really sorry. I love you Dad. You know I’d never do anything to hurt you.”
“Anyway, I want you to know I’m going to make things right. After all, I live here too. I’ve been looking around in here, and I think I can fix it.
“It’s not hard, just retard a little growth here, spur some there, move some hormones, adjust a balance, tweak the immune system a bit. Pretty straightforward actually, I just assumed you handled these things yourself, but it looks like you’ve mostly got it all on automatic.
“I think I can make a few improvements actually. I’m thinking of doing something with all the cholesterol around your heart. Maybe it’s supposed to be there, but I really think things would work better without it. You’ll never be sick again, Dad, never in pain. I promise. And you’ll live a long long time, maybe forever, and you won’t ever get old.
“You handle the outside, I’ll take care of the inside. We’ll be a great team, Dad. I swear.
“I want to make things better for you, Dad. I want to show you that I appreciate what you’ve gone through for me. We’ll be a family, Dad. We’ll be terrific together.”
Hersh could feel it go silent, waiting expectantly for his answer. He tried to smile at it, to say something. But instead, he just drifted off to sleep.
* * *
The next morning, Hersh woke feeling much better.
The pain was gone entirely. Hersh had a new sense of energy, of wellbeing.
“Hi Dad,” the cancer said brightly. “How do you feel?”
“Pretty good,” Hersh said out loud.
“We’re glad,” the cancer replied.
“I think we’ll go for a walk,” Hersh said out loud.
“That sounds like fun,” the cancer said.
* * *
“Why aren’t we eating today?” the cancer asked curiously.
“Hush,” Hersh told it.
The Doctor was in the room, talking to him.
“Still hearing voices?” the Doctor asked, noticing.
“Now and then,” Hersh replied carefully.
The Doctor shrugged his shoulders. “We’ll see about dealing with that afterwards.”
“Surgery is scheduled for 6:00 pm. With any luck, it’ll be a simple procedure,” he continued. “Just remember the precautions.”
“All right,” Hersh answered.
Hersh shook his head.
“Fine,” said the Doctor, “I’ll see you tomorrow when you’re post-op. I’m really pleased to see the improvements you’ve made recently.”
After the Doctor left, the cancer spoke up again.
“What was that all about?” it asked.
“It’s the operation.”
That stopped Hersh for a moment. Could it really not know? It occurred to him then, that it had never really thought of itself as a disease, but rather, some sort of progeny of his.
What a natural mistake, he thought. Picking and choosing concepts haphazardly from his mind. Grappling with language. Struggling with concepts of an outside world alien to it. Was it a surprise, as it forged a self-identity, that it would equate itself, not with disease and illness, but with people?
It was waiting politely for his reply.
Hersh felt embarrassed suddenly.
“My operation,” he told it. “They’re going to cut me open.”
“Why?” the cancer asked.
“The cure for cancer,” he said, “cut it out.”
SHOCK! Again, like before, the vast ripple of surprise and trepidation. Then suddenly the familiar sensation of it desperately plunging through his memories. Sorting, selecting, collating.
An instant of heart pounding silence.
SCREAM ringing through him. A scream of shock and horror, or a world turned inside out.
And at the center of it all, a sensation of betrayal.
* * *
“You fucker,” it screamed. “Fucker! Prick! Bastard!”
Hersh closed his eyes trying to blot it out, but that only made the screaming worse in his head. Giddy and exhausted from the drugs, he could only lay there and listen as it raged.
“I can’t believe you’d do this to me, your own flesh and blood! I loved you, you bastard, and now you’re going to open us up and cut me out. Oh Jesus, please don’t do this to me. I’ll do anything. You’re killing the both of us. Oh please.”
“It won’t be long now, Mr. Hersh,” the intern whispered to him as they wheeled him into the operating room. Hersh blinked in acknowledgement.
“Oh God,” the cancer said desperately. “Why doesn’t somebody stop this.”
But nobody heard it.
“You bastard,” the cancer screamed anew, “you total bastard. You never loved me, you probably never even liked me, and now you’re going to do this thing to me. I’m going to get you. I could have done so much for you, we could have done so much together. But you have to be alone, you selfish pig.
“Don’t you dare think you can just cut me out and walk away. I’m going to get you. I’m going to make you pay.”
As the anesthesia mask closed over his face, the last thing he heard was his cancer, desperately howling revenge.
* * *
On the table, Hersh had a dream. He dreamed that his cancer spoke to him one last time, just before they cut it out.
It said: “Please Dad, I love you. Why didn’t you love me?”
Hersh wanted to say that he did, to explain. But it was gone. He realized that he couldn’t explain, anyway.
* * *
Hersh woke. The pain, his old friend, was back. But this was a different pain. A pain of sutures and incisions, of a body grossly violated rather than insidiously decaying.
He contemplated this pain for a few minutes and decided that it was a good thing. He felt the vague fuzz of drugs in his mind and this inspired a feeling of wrongness.
He tried to track it down. Ah yes, it was silent inside. No voices. Where was the voice? Then he remembered that the cancer had been cut out. Satisfied, he drifted back to sleep.
* * *
The Doctor came to visit, he sat beside the bed.
“How are you feeling?” the Doctor asked.
“Fine,” replied Hersh. “Tired.” How should he feel? He’d been dying and they’d gutted him like a trout to save his life. How do you feel for something like that?
It was quiet in his head. He found himself asking questions or explaining things to the emptiness. He missed the curious childlike voice he’d ascribed to the cancer. His cancer.
“You’re recovering nicely,” the Doctor said genially. “We got most of it.”
“Most,” Hersh asked quietly.
There was a silence in his mind.
“Tell me about the tumor,” he asked.
The Doctor looked surprised at the question.
“It was just a tumor. Gray pink. It looked kind of like a cauliflower, wrinkled up like a brain.”
“Like a brain,” Hersh repeated.
The Doctor frowned.
“It wasn’t a brain, it was just a tumor. Just cells growing wild and uncontrolled.”
“I’ve heard,” Hersh whispered, “that they’ve found tumors that had hair and teeth.”
“It was just a tumor,” the Doctor said emphatically. “The biopsy will show it. It was just a mass or renegade cells.”
That called me ‘Dad,’ Hersh thought bitterly.
Biopsy? An undefinable unease swept through him.
“Just make sure no one touches it,” Hersh said. “Okay?”
He wanted to tell the Doctor to give it a decent burial, but he knew how that would sound.
“We need to talk about something else,” the Doctor said.
“No,” Hersh said quickly.
“The tumor had metastized. There was a secondary tumor.”
“You didn’t get that one too?”
“Not from where we opened you up. It’s not like lifting the hood of a car, we try and minimize the degree of intervention. From the surgery, we could see evidence of it, we just weren’t in a position to remove it.”
“Oh,” said Hersh.
Back to the battlefields of his body. That tired old war. Back to dying by inches, dying by waiting.
He sighed heavily.
The silence in his mind was deafening.
Even if he did beat it, he thought suddenly, it was only a future of empty houses and empty rooms. No one to talk to.
“We think it’s controllable. After you recover, we’d like to begin a chemotherapy regime.”
“It’d said ‘we,’ Hersh thought abruptly, remembering the cancer’s voice. It’d called us a family.
Had it known about the secondary tumor. Had it considered it a brother? For a moment, Hersh visualized the two of them, sitting there in his body, like kids under the blanket after lights out, giggling and whispering secrets to each other.
Hersh’s thoughts moved slowly and clumsily. It was like his mind was wearing thick gloves that made it hard to handle things.
Was this one the promised instrument of revenge? Hersh wondered. A time bomb left behind?
Was it simply a lump of insane cells? A simple malignancy, to be dealt with in the normal way.
Or did this one too have a soul? A voice of its own, waiting to speak?
He wanted to talk about this to the Doctor, but he knew what the Doctor would say.
The Doctor would say it was just a tumor. A part of his body gone wrong, rogue cells multiplying. He’d say that getting rid of it was no more meaningful than clipping your nails. The Doctor would tell him that it was him or it. Kill or be killed.
But what if the Doctor was wrong?
Did he have the right to cut short this brief potential life, simply to extend his own a few more agonizing pain filled months? What if he died anyway? All he’d have to show for it was two innocent voices, untimely stilled.
Empty houses and empty rooms.
Can I murder my children?
“No,” he said abruptly.
“Pardon,” the Doctor said.
He looked vaguely annoyed at having been interrupted. Hersh realized that the Doctor had been talking, and he hadn’t been listening.
“No,” he repeated. “No more chemotherapy. No more surgery.”
His voice trembled, it was weak and shaky, but something inside him had set firmly.
The Doctor stared at him a few moments. Hersh had no idea what the man was thinking. It occurred to him that the two of them stood at opposite intersections of life and death.
“All right,” the Doctor said finally, standing, “in the end, the patient has to decide whether he’ll accept treatment or not. I’ll give you some time, maybe when you’re recovered from surgery, you’ll think it over and change your mind.”
“I won’t. I’ve made my choice,” Hersh whispered back, surprising himself with his firmness.
Hersh watched the man leave. He was so tired. The conversation had exhausted him.
He’d made his choice. But what choice had he made? Hersh wondered, as he drifted off to sleep. Had he chosen life or death? And whose?
Inside his head, it was quiet. There were no voices, not even his own.
* * *
Late at night, Hersh roused to the sound of a figure staggering through the doorway.
It was a nurse, he thought.
Then he saw the gleam of a scalpel, inexpertly clutched.
The body moved clumsily, as if unused to having to manipulate external limbs.
As it came closer, Hersh could see that there was a strange growth clinging to the nurses skin, tendrils extended from it, running along the skin and inside the body.
There was a lot of blood.
It must have been terribly desperate, he thought, lying there in the dish, traumatized by the surgery, waiting helpless for the biopsy.
They shouldn’t have touched it, he thought. They’d given it one last desperate slim chance, and it had reached for it full of fear and panic, clung and climbed and lashed out.
When it finally spoke, he recognized its voice.
* * *
The room was empty.
“Hello,” he said aloud, both fearing and hoping to hear another voice, without or within.
There was none. He was alone in his head again. Whatever voice that had been was stilled.
“Hello,” he said.
But it didn’t answer.