Illustration by Kathleen Foley
I am medium height, medium weight with brown eyes and brown hair. I am built from carbon, iron, oxygen and average facts. But there is one fact about me that is rather unsettling: I’m going to die today.
The Black Angel has picked up my scent and is nipping at my ankles. To think- I’m only 27-years-old, and her teeth would send me to the Ferry Man so soon. I’m too young to worry about whether or not I’ll be reincarnated as an insect; too young to knock on the gates of Heaven. This is something I’d like to avoid at all cost, especially, when I can’t even decide on which version of religion I want to believe.
I must admit. I’m rather pissed at Death. It has an endless supply of food, for we all go at some point. That’s fine. That’s the natural symptom of being alive. But it’s its insatiable hunger that angers me. No matter the hundreds of thousands of people who die every single day, no matter how consistently fat its belly, it always begs for more, and you never know when one of us will be its stolen-treat before dinner. No matter what. My cat acts the same way- crying for treats not five seconds after feeding her a second helping.
I sit here pondering other similarities between Death and Mittens, and whether or not my life can be spared if I point a water bottle at Death. It’s a few seconds before an outside voice breaks through my thoughts.
“Mr. Stevens?” It starts to come into focus. “Tom, are you okay?”
“Sorry,” I tell my doctor. I shut down my mind’s morbid eye, and take in my surroundings, again. I’m sitting on a table at my doctor’s office. One of those backless gowns drapes my body. There’s not a subconscious bone in me about this. I’ve been here too many times by now.
“Daydreaming?” Dr. Pascal asks.
“Is Day-nightmaring a thing?” I respond, the smirk on my lips trying to mask the desperation in my eyes.
“Hm, I assume that it’s come back then?”
My mouth doesn’t open. I can’t even begin to form the words in my vocal cords.
“Tell me what the problem is,” he prompts.
“Well,” I always start off my list of symptoms with a moment’s hesitation. I don’t ever want to forget an item. You never know which one can be life altering. “My heart’s been beating kind of fast.” Just saying the words makes my heart pump even faster. “My stomach’s been off. I haven’t really been able to go to the bathroom even when I feel like I have to.”
“Have you been able to pass gas?”
“Yes.” I breathe a little easier, because I know my answer to this question is at least a good sign. And I need one right now.
“How long has it been since you started the new medication?” The doctor looks to his chart of notes.
“It’s been two weeks. The recommended two weeks you told me,” I reply. “How’s my blood pressure?” The nurse had thrown some numbers at me I didn’t understand, and I was too nervous to inquire their meaning.
“It’s a bit higher than I would like,” he notes. My heart skips. “Is the medication having any effect at all?”
“I-I don’t know.”
“Have you been having headaches?”
“A little. I had a couple recently.”
“Did they happen after you started the medication?”
“I- Well, I think so.”
“Shortness of breath?”
“Hm,” he replies and instead of giving me an automatic answer, as if diagnosis comes from a moment of inspiration that only years of medical school debt can bestow, Dr. Pascal continue to scan my chart. It’s making me nervous.
“Let me take a look at you.” He puts down the clipboard, grabs his stethoscope, and directs, “When I tell you, take a deep breath.”
“Here it goes,” Death hisses into my ear, which is always open to its words. It has taken a break from chomping at my ankles, and slithered right next to me on the table. It’s so close to me that my nose picks up Death’s scent. It smells like a tuna melt…with a hint of yellow mustard. It smells just like my best friend Marty’s favorite sandwich. I better give him a call if I make it out of here.
The doctor presses the end of the stethoscope against my bare chest.
“Breathe in,” he orders.
Every inch of my lungs fill with air. I’m trying to calm my nerves to make the process easier.
“See that look his face?” Death whispers. “There’s something wrong.”
My doctor tells me to breathe in and then exhale, again, and I have to admit: His face does look a tad too serious. He could just be focusing- making sure to listen for whatever it is that doctors listen for in this scenario. Or-
“He knows something’s very, very wrong with you,” Death chimes in. “He hears something horrific.”
“I’ve- I’ve been feeling a little bit of pain around my liver,” I suddenly revel.
“How painful?” Dr. Pascal asks.
“Not really painful. I guess it’s more like a soreness. A pinch.” I try hard to find the right word. “A…sensation of sorts.” I fail.
“Okay, I’ll take a feel,” my doctor obliges. “See what’s up.”
I’m so nervous that I can barely feel the pressure from his fingers on my right side.
“He feels a lump,” Death’s hissing begins again. “Your father was an alcoholic, and you inherited his liver.”
“Okay, you can cover your upper half, back up,” the doctor says.
“So- so,” I stammer, as I prepare to ask the most important question of my life, “how’s everything look?”
Dr. Pascal’s eyes lock with mine, and there’s a moment’s pause. In fact, it’s barely a moment. It’s barely a pause. He just needs to gather air for the words he’s about to say, but the process is long enough to allow Death to invade my ear once more.
“Brace yourself, Tom. This is it. You’re mine.” I can feel Death’s forked tongue in my ear.
I do something that I told myself I would never do again. I’ve sworn to my reflection in every single mirror in my home that I would stop. I promised that things were different- that I was not the person who would do what I am about to.
In this moment, I agree with Death, whose hand grabs mine, and I resign myself to whatever fatal words my doctor is about to revel.
My heart’s pounding is do deafening, I’m not sure I heard Dr. Pascal.
“Wh- what?” I ask with caution.
“Everything’s fine. Doesn’t look like anything is wrong with you.” There are no better words! There is no bigger smile! There is no greater- “But I am disappointed about one thing.”
“It’s disappointing that the pills didn’t work. The headaches, shortening of breath and most likely the soreness are all probably due to your normal stress,” the doctor notes.
“I did get myself a little too worked up about the side effects,” I admit. “I know you told me not to read them, and I didn’t for a few days. But I don’t know. I guess I just had this voice in my head that convinced me that they could be dangerous.”
I glare at Death.
“Well, don’t worry about the pills anymore,” Dr. Pascal tells me. “Looks like the FDA’s new cure for hypochondria isn’t an end all cure for everyone. I personally have never seen anyone with worse hypochondria than you, Tom. I’m suggesting, again, that you talk with a therapist about this. You’re here every two weeks at this point.”
He’s right. My hypochondria flares up like clockwork. My paranoia sends me here to this office to rant, yell and cry about all the cancers and blood cots that are killing me. My doctor, in turn, points out the obvious (like the time he came to the conclusion that the weird sound within my chest cavity that I was so worried about was not a symptom of something horrific, but rather just the sound of me breathing). When this happens, my body baths in relief, and I’m a new man. Free of stress. Free of panic attacks. Free. For exactly two weeks. Then something else like a headache or off-putting cough has me charging another co-pay to my card.
I am not the only victim of my hypochondria, though. And neither are my family, friends or girlfriend, who put up with it. As I let a relieved smile conquer my lips, the frown on Death’s face weighs its head down. I am medium height, medium weight with brown eyes and brown hair. Even my mental disorder is shared by more and more people in this age of WebMD. I am not special. Expect that I get to tease Death on a constant basis and survive.
Death’s mouth waters. Its hands reach out and its on the balls of its feet, ready to snatch me away every single time I convince myself that it’s my time. But then my doctor gives me the facts, and Death’s pre-mature celebration has to wait another two weeks late.
I’m an incurable hypochondriac. I’m an accidental con man greedy Death never sees coming.
“So, I’m fine?” I ask Dr. Pascal. My face glows with joy. I know the answer.
As I go to leave the doctor’s office a walking smile, I feel a little tickle in my throat. It’s faint. Almost non-existent. But it is there, and my mind begins to wander. I can feel Death’s eyes inch toward me once more. It can sense my fear taking hold, and I can hear the lick of its black lips.
“I’m fine,” I reassure myself.
Quick note about this: I caught the flu right after coming up with the story. And I’ll ask for another prompt next week. Till then!