Jeff is losing his wife to her work... literally
| Every rose has its thorns, or at least that’s what Poison said to me by way of the radio when I was a kid, and I think they were probably right. My Rose had her thorns anyway, that’s for sure. Her thorns were as sharp as needles.
Rose was twenty-two and vibrant with life when I met her, and I was twenty-three and in love from the second I first saw her. I was at a coffee shop where the college kids hung out, pretending to be one of them and trying to get a date. Rose, although I didn’t know her name at the time, was dancing with a few other girls beside her table as some punk band hammered out tunes on the tiny stage in the corner. Her face was glowing with pleasure and an obvious love of life. She didn’t have any thorns then, or if she did, they were still nubs on the inside that hadn’t grown into points yet.
It took me several weeks of casual conversation at the coffee shop to get a date with her, but in the long run it paid off. We dated for almost a year, and were married when she graduated from the university. I worked in a lumber yard for minimum wage, but she got a good job at the university hospital with her degree, so times weren’t too bad. We were happy, neither of us wanted kids, and everything was great. Within a few years, I made it into lower management at the lumber yard and started working longer hours, and looking back, I think that’s when Rose started to change.
When you’re in the middle of a slowly-changing situation, it’s hard to tell that anything is different. It’s like looking in the mirror every day to see if you look older; you are so close that you can’t tell. It also doesn’t help when you aren’t looking for anything peculiar. I think that if I had been suspicious sooner, I might have picked up on a few subtle hints here and there. Hindsight twenty-twenty, right? Of course, I probably would have driven myself crazy too, so maybe it’s better that I was oblivious.
Rose worked in a research lab at the hospital. I really don’t know what she did there. She used to try to explain it to me, stuff about DNA and stem cells, and inventing chemicals for drugs, but she’s a lot smarter than me, and most of it went right over my head. After a while, she didn’t bother with it anymore. Once I became the yard manager at the lumber yard, we rarely discussed work at all. I couldn’t understand what she did, and she was bored by what I did. I understood that; you can only talk about wood and sheetrock and shingles for so long. Hell, after dealing with it all day, I didn’t want to talk about it anyway. So we lived our lives, left work at work, and enjoyed each others company on the weekends. In the summer we went to the ocean a lot, sipping drinks at beachside tiki-bars or walking along the shore. When it was too cold to go out there, we went to movies or sat on the couch and read books.
Our outings, and our time spent together in general, slowly started dwindling as the years went by, though I didn’t really notice at first. As it became more apparent to me that we didn’t do much together anymore, I mentioned it to her once in a while. Her replies were vague and dismissive at first, but became sharper and more heated later on. One of these conversations became an out and out fight, and that’s when I first noticed the cuts on her arms.
“I’m not saying that you’re avoiding me, honey. I’m just saying that I think we should make it a point to start spending more time together like we used to,” I reasoned.
“Well, it sure sounds accusatory to me, Jeff. When you start riding my ass about it, it makes me want to spend less time with you. Why do you have to be so overbearing about it?”
“Overbearing? How am I being overbearing? I’m just trying to have a damn conversation with you!” My voice was becoming heated, but I couldn’t help it. “I’m not being overbearing; you’re just refusing to have a rational discussion.” I folded my arms and glared at her across the kitchen.
“Oh, now I’m being irrational, is that it?” she asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “What the fuck do you want from me, huh? More sex? Is that it?” She threw her arms up in the air. “Fine, here I am! Come get what you want, if that will shut you up. Christ!”
My reply died in my throat. When she raised her arms, her sleeves slid down around her shoulders, exposing a long pink line running down the inside of her bicep and disappearing into her left armpit.
“What… what the hell happened to your arm?” I asked, temporarily forgetting about the argument. “Is that a cut?”
She looked startled for a moment, and then savagely yanked her sleeves down. The anger returned to her face. “Don’t pry into my business, Jeff. Just leave me the fuck alone.” She turned and walked out of the room, leaving me speechless.
I sat down heavily into a kitchen chair and tried to remember the last time she had used the F word. I wasn’t sure if I had ever heard her say it before, but it came out of her mouth as smooth as if she’d been using it for years. I suddenly felt like I didn’t even know her anymore. And that cut, Jesus, it must have been a foot long. Where in the world did that come from? It dawned on me that I hadn’t even gotten to tell her that it wasn’t about sex.
In the weeks and months that followed, I began to keep a careful eye on Rose, watching for signs of any more cuts. My little sister had been a cutter, and although I really didn’t think Rose was a cutter, I couldn’t think of any other reason that she’d have something like that on her arm. It was a tough task. Since our blowout, she was keeping her distance from me. We still slept in the same bed, but she waited until I was asleep to come to bed, and slept in until I was gone to work. It became a challenge, and I almost forgot why I was looking. My break finally came, though I later wondered if it was such a break after all.
I was sitting on the couch drinking beer and watching some forgettable program on the Discovery channel. I assumed Rose was in the computer room, though to be honest I really wasn’t thinking about her at the time. My primary concerns were taking a piss and getting another beer from the refrigerator. I got up and made my way down the hall to the bathroom, and when I pushed the door open, she was standing there in front of the mirror. She had obviously just gotten out of the shower. Her hair was twirled up on top of her head and wrapped in a towel-turban, and she was naked. My appreciation for her natural beauty was cut short by the state of her body. There were long pink scars on her calves, inner thighs, inner arms, and lower back, and there were three dark pink dots at the base of her skull on her neck. They looked like holes, or open sores. She was inspecting these wounds when I walked in, and there was a frightened look in her eyes as she turned to face me. The fear quickly turned to rage.
“Don’t you fucking knock?” she screamed. I backed up hastily as she slammed the door in my face.
“Honey?” I said timidly. “Honey, don’t you think we should talk about this? I didn’t mean to walk in on you; that was an accident. Honest.” Silence from the other side of the door. “Honey?” I put my ear to the door, and heard her crying softly.
I sat down in the hallway and leaned against the wall. After about ten minutes I heard her blow her nose, and then the door eased open. She looked at me, her eyes swollen red with tears.
“Okay, let’s talk,” she whispered.
I waited for her to put on a robe, and we walked down to the den together. When I sat down on the couch, she sat right beside me, and took my hand in both of hers. It stung my heart to look at her beauty in that moment, so raw, and so real.
“This is very hard for me to explain, Jeff, and you probably won’t understand most of it.” She wasn’t being condescending; she was being honest. I could look into her eyes and realize that truth, and somehow it didn’t bother me.
“It’s okay, honey,” I soothed. “I’ll try to keep up.” I gave her an encouraging smile, and she continued on.
“First off, I’m not cutting myself up in some manic-depressant fit or anything, if that’s what you were thinking. I know you saw my arm a while back, but I couldn’t tell you anything about it then.” She glanced up at me. “I’m sorry about that. I know how you feel about that stuff, with your sister and all, and I’m sorry I had to leave you hanging so long. It’s just…” She trailed off for a moment. “I’m part of an experiment at work right now… this is really hard to explain.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, we’re trying to find out if human tissue grown from stem cells can be transferred into people successfully. You know, for like skin grafts, or organ regeneration and stuff like that.” She paused and took a sip of water.
“I didn’t think anything bad could happen when I volunteered, you know. It started out small, and I guess it just got bigger and bigger. There are five of us hosts, and we all get the exact same thing so they can tell if the tissue will be accepted across the board, see? Like here,” she said, pointing to her leg. “This was a skin graft. My body rejected it, but they cut out the experimental tissue, put my skin back on it and it healed fine. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.” She let out a shaky laugh.
“You could have told me about this, Rose,” I said. “It sounds like you’re a part of something really important.”
“Well, we’re sworn to secrecy. I’m not supposed to be telling you any of this. The main reason I am is because I’m really scared, and I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.” She turned around, and pointed to the three holes in the back of her neck. “See these?” she asked, turning back around. I nodded.
“They introduced some cell tissue into my brain last week. I… I didn’t know they were going to do that. It was supposed to be an observation incision in my lower back to see how the muscle tissue was taking from a few weeks before.” She burst into tears again, and I passed her the tissue box.
“Can’t you just tell them to remove it?” I asked. “Threaten to sue them, or something?”
“It’s not that simple,” she choked. She blew her nose, and tried to regain her composure. “It isn’t like cutting out a bad sample of muscle or skin, or even a piece of lung or liver. If something goes terribly wrong there, they can always just replace the whole thing. You can’t do that with brain tissue. Once it’s in and growing, it becomes part of your brain, and it can’t be removed without killing the host. Which is me, in this case.” She looked at me, her tear-stained cheeks glistening in the lamp light. “And I can’t sue them, because our department doesn’t officially exist. My name isn’t on any employee roster, and neither is anyone else’s in there. There’s no one to sue.”
I sat in stunned silence for a while, trying to absorb all of this information. I had a thousand questions, but I couldn’t form the words to ask any of them. It was just too much to comprehend all at once. Rose was right when she said I probably wouldn’t understand much of it. I decided to focus on my Rose and not stress about the details.
“Honey, we’re going to get through this together,” I began. “I’m going to be here supporting you all the way.” I paused and thought for a moment. “Why don’t you just quit?” I asked suddenly. “Just tell them to stuff it, and walk away? With your resume, you could get a job anywhere.”
“I can’t quit,” she said. Her voice was so low I had to strain to hear her. “You can’t walk away from a job like this. Once you’re in, you’re in for life. They keep us on medication that we rely on to stay alive. If we leave, we don’t get the pills. If we don’t get the pills, we die.” She took a ragged breath. “It all sounded exciting and James Bond-ish in the beginning. I don’t think we really took it serious until it was way too late.”
We talked into the night, and the more I learned, the angrier I became. Not at Rose, mind you, but at the people who lured her into this situation with promises of cutting-edge research and a career that would impact the world of modern medicine. We made a sort of peace with each other, and promised to keep everything out front from now on. When we finally went to bed however, sleep was a long time coming.
Rose began to change soon after that night. It wasn’t a sudden, drastic personality shift, like David Banner turning into the Hulk; it was a slow change, like the minute hand moving around the face of a clock. I noticed that she began to lose her temper more easily, and she began to swear more often. Despite our promise to talk about things, discussing her worsening condition was soon no longer an option. By the time six months had gone by, I knew she was losing her grip. That was when she began to refer to herself in the third person.
“Rose? What’s wrong, honey?” I asked. She was standing in the kitchen. Our answering machine was on the chopping block, and she was holding a meat cleaver, staring at the blade.
“Rose really doesn’t want to talk to you right now, Jeffy. Why don’t you go take a walk?” She gave me a fake smile that made my stomach queasy.
“What are you doing to the answering machine?” I asked. I couldn’t help backing up a step.
“It’s obviously broken. In case you haven’t noticed, it hasn’t recorded a message in months.” She spat the words at me without taking her eyes off of the gleaming blade.
“Sweetheart, no one calls here anymore,” I said slowly, and instantly regretted it. She swung around to face me.
“Just what exactly are you trying to insinuate?” she demanded. “Are you trying to say that no one likes poor little Rose anymore? Is that it, you fucking prick? Huh?” She waved the cleaver.
“Rose, you’re scaring me,” I panted, backing up to the doorway. “Why don’t you put that cleaver down so we can talk?” I pleaded.
“Don’t you tell Rose what to do!” she shrieked.
“Okay, okay.” I gave in and turned away. “I’ll go for a walk. Please don’t destroy anything, though,” I mumbled. I fled to the driveway and sat in the car. My heart was hammering, and I could feel my pulse throbbing in my temples. I had absolutely no idea what to do, but something had to be done. Rose had scared the shit out of me, and I didn’t know if she was really getting violent or just blowing off steam. Waking up with my head chopped off would be a bad way to find out.
Perhaps an hour went by when she came out of the house. I was still sitting in the car. She opened the passenger door and climbed in. There was no sign of the cleaver, but I tensed up and prepared to run anyway. She stared at the dashboard.
“I’m… I’m so sorry, Jeff,” she stammered. “I don’t know what came over me. I don’t know why I say half the things I do anymore.” She glanced at me, and I could see she was ashamed. “I didn’t smash the answering machine,” she added, a sheepish grin trying at her quivering lips. “Thanks for not leaving.”
“Well, I left my keys inside,” I said, unable to stop a small grin of my own. I let out a huge sigh of relief. She seemed to be back to her normal self again, at least for now.
“It’s gonna be okay, baby,” I said, and let out a shaky laugh. “You really scared the shit out of me, you know.”
She flashed a rueful smile. “Yeah, I scared me, too. It’s like I could see and hear what I was doing, but I wasn’t the one doing it, you know? I wasn’t…” she searched for the words. “I wasn’t in control. That’s the really scary part. It’s like someone else was in my brain, pulling the strings.”
I shot her a sideways glance, trying to see if she caught the implication of what she just said. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. I decided to ease out on a limb.
“Do you think it might have something to do with your… surgery?” I asked cautiously. I held my breath and waited for an explosion.
“I… I don’t know.” She hesitated, thinking. “I guess it must, huh?” She looked at me, and I could see the hurt in her eyes. I felt like crying.
“Oh, honey,” I sobbed, pulling her into a hug and stroking her hair. “I’m so sorry all this is happening to you. I still love you though, and I will no matter what.” I pulled back and swiped my sleeve across my nose. “You know we’re in this together, right, kiddo?” I asked. She gave me a grateful pat on the chest.
“Yeah, I know,” she replied. “I know.”
We went back in the house, and I made supper for us. Everything seemed to be back to normal, but just to be on the safe side, I kept a wary eye on her whenever she moved.
The next week passed without incident. I made every effort to keep her spirits up, though going to work was a test of my ability to cope. By Saturday, I was actually beginning to think that things were indeed getting better. That is, until I heard her screaming in the bathroom.
“Get out! Get out, you fucking bitch!” Rose screamed. I bolted from the couch, where I had been watching college football, thinking someone had broken into the house. Rose sounded terrified. As I raced down the hallway, trying to find out where the sound was coming from, I heard her speak again, but in a totally different voice. I slowed my pace, and stopped outside the closed bathroom door, listening.
“Oh no, Rose, that shit ain’t gonna work,” I heard Rose say. She sounded angry, but far from hysterical, like before. “I’m here to stay, honey. You’re the one that’s gotta go.”
“Get out!” Rose shrieked again, her voice cracking. “Get out of my head, get the fuck out, get out!” I heard glass shatter, and I threw the door open. Rose was standing in front of the shattered mirror, holding her bleeding hand to her heaving chest. Her hair was wildly tangled, and her eyes had the crazy glint of a rabid animal. She turned towards me, her face contorted.
“Hey, motherfucker,” she snarled.
“Rose?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. “Honey?”
“Rose thinks you ought to fuck off, honey,” she spat. “Any time now would be fine.”
“Jeff, run away,” Rose pleaded. “I can’t control her!” Her face began to spasm, and she picked up a piece of the broken mirror. “Yeah, run Jeffy, you coward,” she taunted, but her voice was rougher, meaner. It dawned on me that she might be schizophrenic, even if it was induced by the cell implant. “Run away before I cut off your little balls.”
I backed into the hall and closed the door, praying that she wouldn’t hurt herself. I didn’t know what to say, so I simply returned to the couch and waited for what I hoped was a brief storm to pass. The game continued on the television, but I stared through it, lost in my thoughts and listening towards the hall. After an hour of silence in the house, I crept down the hallway. The bathroom door was open, and the room was empty. I slipped further down the hall to the bedroom door and peeked in. Rose was asleep on the bed, and I could see the rise and fall of her chest. Relieved, I returned to the den. I had lost interest in the football game, so I shut the television off and thought about my situation instead.
After looking at every possible angle that I could think of, I finally accepted the fact that there was only one decision that I could make. I was either going to stay with Rose for better or for worse, like I vowed to do, or I could leave her to fend for herself. The thought of deserting her when she needed me the most hurt too bad to even honestly consider. However, if she was really capable of hurting me, or even killing me (and I had no doubt that she might after what I had just witnessed) it would probably be suicide to stick around. The thought that my precious Rose would do something like that to me, or anyone, for that matter, was hard to believe, but I reminded myself that she didn’t seem to be alone in her head anymore. Whatever or whoever they had slipped into her brain was without a doubt a wretched, evil being, and it was slowly consuming her.
I didn’t have to think about it much longer. When I woke up the next morning, Rose was straddling my chest. She had a butcher knife held against my throat, and she was giggling. That rabid look was in her eyes again, and my testes shrank up into my stomach.
“Rose, what are you doing?” I whispered. I was too scared to speak any louder, and for a moment I had the wild thought that my furiously thumping heart might just buck her off of my chest. The hope it offered was short lived.
“Rose don’t live here no more,” she cackled. “And you fixin to leave, too!”
She swung the knife up over her head, grasped it with both hands, and plunged it down towards my face. Pure instinct was all that saved my life in that moment. I grabbed up at her arms and jerked my head to the side. The blade opened my cheek and pierced my ear before she ripped it back up. I managed to grip her wrists, and we struggled against each other. Suddenly she stopped pushing, and whipped the blade up to her own neck.
“Kill me, baby,” she whispered, and I knew that that was my Rose, and not the other one. “Kill me quick!”
I looked into her eyes, and knew I would never be able to do it. Instead, I rolled over, throwing her to the floor beside the bed. Her head bounced off the wall, and I rolled back to the other side of the bed and raced down the hall in my boxers. I grabbed my car keys off the kitchen counter as I went by, and went out the front door. I didn’t sit around in the driveway this time, hoping to see if she would come to her senses. Things had progressed beyond that point. I had blood pouring out of my cheek and ear, coating my whole body, and that was enough to tell me it was time to go. I started the car and squealed the tires as I left, my mind churning too fast to even think about where I was going.
I barely made it to the end of the street before I started getting dizzy. It took me a minute to realize why, to remember that I was bleeding like a stuck pig. There were two hospitals to choose from, and the one at the university was out of the question. After all, it was their fault that I was in this position. I headed for the other one.
While I drove, I thought about Rose, my poor, sweet Rose. How dare those bastards take my Rose away from me! Why, the nerve it must take to steal the perfect woman from the man who loves her most… the girl who was shaking her booty at that coffee shop, what was the name of that place? I couldn’t remember.
Looking back, I think I must have passed out, or been on the verge of it. I rolled through a red light about thirty miles an hour, according to the police, and T-boned a van. All I remember is thinking about Rose, and then realizing that I was stopped. I looked up, and the first thing I saw was the logo on the side of the van. University Hospital: The Most Trusted Name in Healthcare. The van looked like it was resting on a cloud, and I finally realized that it was my airbag. It was covered in blood from my cheek. That helped me focus a little bit, long enough to ask the paramedic not to take me there, not to take me to University, because they fucked up my wife. Everything after that was a blur.
They let me out of the hospital the next day. I hadn’t sustained any injuries from the crash, but the doctor was very curious to know how I had been cut like that, especially while I was in my underwear. He asked me several times while I was still doped up from receiving the twenty-seven stitches, but I couldn’t move my mouth to talk. I finally wrote him a note just before they discharged me, and told him I had been mugged and stripped, and was driving myself to the hospital when the wreck happened. What was I going to do, tell him the truth? He’d never believe me, and I didn’t blame him. I wouldn’t believe me, either. He seemed to accept my story, and promised to notify the police about it. I nodded my head, and staggered out to hail a cab.
When I got home, Rose was gone. The house was cleaned up; no broken mirror in the bathroom (no mirror either), no bloody sheets on the bed, no bloodspots on the floor anywhere in the house. I sat on the couch the whole day, ready for her to come home and finish me off. I was tired of the struggle, or maybe it was just the painkillers, but either way, I decided I was done with it. Let her do what she has to do, and pray that Rose, my Rose, my dear, dear Rose, managed to come through for me and drive that other thing out of her head. It was all I had to hold on to.
She didn’t come home that night. I sat up on the couch waiting, dozing in and out, but she never showed up. She didn’t come home the next day, or the day after that. I called my boss and took medical leave for a week, and I sat on the couch waiting for my Rose to come back, but she never did. I finally had to go back to work, and the wound on my cheek healed up to a fine pink line. It reminded me of the lines on Rose’s arms and legs. I told myself that she had gone to work and flipped out there, and they had killed her. I told myself that she went to the beach, caught a boat going across the ocean, and jumped overboard halfway there. I told myself that she went to the police and told her story, and they had her committed into an insane asylum. I told myself that she was hiding until she got better, so she could come home to me once again. I hope that last one is what it really is. I’ll be here waiting for her, my Rose, my precious, precious Rose.