Cancer's Loving Fist by Donovan Douglas Thiesson

Stevie's great-grandmother looks great for her age, despite bequeathing deadly cancers to all of her descendants.

Image generated with OpenAI
I hate my Grossma.

It wasn't always this way. My earliest memories of Grossma are the times we spent together playing dominoes. As a young child, I didn't understand there was an actual game involved, one requiring more skill than simply knocking them down in a long, curling row.

We would spend what felt like hours setting them up like spotted tombstones, perfectly spaced despite her shaking fingers. Overflowing with anticipation, I would gently topple the first one. I remember the clack-clack-clack like it happened yesterday. I would tell Grossma it sounded like a machine gun, and her toothless smile would lose itself in the deep folds of her wrinkles.

She would make her hot chocolate slightly bitter, and I would greedily slurp it up, even if it scalded my throat. I don't remember Grossma ever saying more than one word at a time, but she must have. I was just too young to notice. I have fond memories of her from my childhood, but I hate her for what she has become.

Last month I bought water bottles, the kind they warned us about on the news, remember way back around the turn of the century? The plastic, colored ones that cause cancer. They don't sell them anymore, but if you go to a Value Village or some other secondhand thrift store, over time you'll find them. The other day I found three, each scummy with grime and decades worth of dishwasher cycles. A real catch.

I kept one for Grossma's juice and melted down the other two into a sort of candle. It didn't work very well. It kept sputtering out into a puff of black smoke and was difficult to light. I know now that candles are made of wax. Why did I always think they were plastic?

Near the end of spring, I learned about the B portion of the ultraviolet spectrum online. I was never good at school, but I'm really good with Google.

I had a windowpane made special downtown, so it doesn't filter out the ultraviolet. I told the men at the shop it was because I have pet reptiles and they need full spectrum lighting. They stopped caring at the word "because", but better to be safe.

When you sit there in front of the window in the morning, you get a full blast of the sun until noontime or so. You can feel the heat on your skin, as if the window were a magnifying glass. Three hours a day, Grossma sits there, staring into the sun. Her skin is always cool. She never burns or blisters, though she is now as tan as teaked wood.

Lately I've taken up smoking. Two packs a day, and a cigar, and now I cough more than I breathe. Grossma can't smoke them herself, but even if she could, they say secondhand smoke is worse, so I pull the blanket over top of our heads like a tent and smoke and cough. Our special little treat together.

I work in a hospital, surprising, right? I'm not a doctor, or a nurse, or some sort of technician or specialist. I'm not even a chef, but I do work in the cafeteria. I'm the line cook for the world's blandest food.

Not what I had hoped for in a career, but there was no money for school. I'm smart enough to go, but not smart enough to go with a scholarship, and Grossma's care always cost more than anyone in my family brought in. She has a small pension, but not enough to cover everything.

I can't simply snuff Grossma out. I can't use a pillow, I'm not experienced enough to use drugs, and I wouldn't know the proper dose of insulin or morphine. Even if I did, I don't know what they test for in an autopsy, and the idea of dying in prison is almost as horrifying as dying of leukemia.

Most importantly of all, and I can't emphasize this enough, Grossma can't go quick. It needs to be a slow, creeping, terrible death. Grossma hasn't moved in thirty years, and I want her to sit up and scream, if only for this one last time.

So no, I can't directly kill Grossma, which is why I've chosen an indirect route, with a good dose of poetic justice placed on top. No one gets life in prison for cancer. If they did, Grossma would be serving multiple life sentences, back-to-back.

You see, Grossma killed my whole family with cancer. I know you won't get it, and maybe there is nothing to get. Maybe I have cancer in my brain, twisting barbed vines through my thoughts and squeezing my memories. That would be the easy answer.

But I know.

Underneath my deepest of tumors, I know. Cancer doesn't erase your whole existence. Cancer doesn't stalk you in the night and follow you no matter where you go.

My father always told me, one death is a tragedy. Twice is an awful, awful coincidence. Three times? Well, that's a pattern, son. And Grossma's death toll is well above three.

I'm not saying Grossma doesn't love her family, I think everyone she killed she loved, at least the ones I know about, but Grossma is still Grossma, and she cannot change her nature any more than an amoeba can.

Like I said before, I don't remember Grossma ever talking much. Mom told me she stopped when I was eight. The doctors said it was something like Alzheimer's, but maybe not exactly Alzheimer's, and eventually they stopped checking and shrugging their shoulders. It doesn't matter, no one has taken Grossma to see a doctor in two decades.

We'd go into her room, and sit next to her, and she would mutter "Patricia?"

My mom would lean in. "This is Steven, Gramma. My son. Patricia died years ago."

Grossma would lift her head slightly and smile and mumble, "Patricia?"

Patricia was my older sister. I never met her. Mom cried sometimes, and there are pictures of a girl, immortalized at the age of four, staring down at me from the mantel with laughing, curious eyes. The hollow pain she left behind in my family is all I've ever known of her.

Most of the pictures Mom had were of the last few months before she died, as if she realized too late how few photographs there were of her daughter, and tried to make up for it during Patricia's last few months. They look pretty much the same. Patricia in bed, her body curled with leukemia, and Grossma sitting in her wheelchair and holding Patricia's tiny palm in her own.

Those photos aren't on the mantel; I stuffed them under Grossma's mattress. I'm not sure if I believe in ghosts, but late at night, I imagine Patricia's spirit hovering above Grossma, staring down into her open eyes.

When Grossma couldn't sit anymore, the family talked long and hard about putting her in an old folk's home. A 'retirement' home, as my father put it. Grandma and Mom wouldn't have it. There were stories on the news every few months, staff abusing elders, bed sores, substandard food, kind of like what I cook now.

"Those poor people don't need any more pain in their lives," my grandma said. I thought at the time, isn't that an odd thing for Grandma to say?

Now it makes sense. Hindsight is twenty-twenty. I think they also saw a part of Grossma in themselves, their own futures bearing down upon them like tidal waves of soggy diapers and foggy eyes. Family was better. It had to be, and if they did unto Grossma, thus it would be done unto them.

And so Grossma went home with Grandma.

I loved my grandma more than life itself, such a cliché thing to say, I know. Our relationship wasn't comprised of scattered memories of dominoes or struggling to remember her voice. She played a large role in raising me, almost as much as my mom and dad. Grandma always told me I was born too soon after Patricia went to Jesus, so I needed to spend more time with Grandma while my mom healed and moved on with herself.

I'm a product of the Nineties. The music I listen to, the way I talk, the way I relate to everything around me. I still wear baggy jeans and listen to Nirvana. My grandma was like that, but with the Forties. She wore flower print dresses and called people "baby doll" and "sugar". I think we all carry some flavor of our teenage years with us, and I loved that about her.

I remember her bright brown eyes. Hazel. I think they call that hazel. I remember when I scraped my knee and she held me close and whispered, "big boys don't cry, hon", and me knowing full well she didn't mean it.

She took me to the park when Mom couldn't afford a sitter. She never pushed me on the swing, but watched me from the bench, telling me I could do it myself, better than anyone else, and if I tried hard enough, I could spin in a circle right around the top. Of course, I never did, but I sure tried.

She was never disappointed in where I ended up in life, or if she was, she didn't show it. Cooking was good, honest work in her eyes, and a wage was a wage. And working in a hospital? Hospitals don't go out of business when the economy slows down. I told her what I wanted to do, and she held my face in both hands and brought me close.

"My little sugar," she said. "One day, I hope you'll cook for me."

And I did. At the end, while she lay screaming in the hospice ward.

Breast cancer. She had beaten it twice, and both times done so with grace and feigned nonchalance. But like the saying goes, the third time's a charm.

We saw the changes and said nothing. We all knew the signs of chemo by then, and we pretended not to notice the way her wig started to sag down to her eyebrows, as if her skull was shrinking. We purposefully looked away from her chest, rendered flat over time, now little more than a sunken rib cage.

She held out until the end, refusing help at home or with Grossma, and finally the ambulance took her away. She died in agony two days later, her eyes rolled up to the whites, stinking of shit and bleach and engorged on the fake potatoes I cooked that night.

While Grandma lay in the hospital dying, Grossma lay at home in bed with no one to watch her.

I remember sitting in the corner, in one of those poorly padded chairs that never quite reaches far enough up your back, shrouded in shadows. My mom sat next to her, her eyes bloodshot, the slatted shadows from the venetian blinds dancing across her puffy face.

"Forget her," my grandma hissed between moans. "Forget that bitch. Let her wither away and die a woman. Think of your family."

"I am. I'm thinking of family." My mother saw me then, cloaked in dark. "Out! Get out!"

That night, after Grandma had finally, mercifully, passed, my mother took me to see Grossma. My mom sat next to her, and told her in great detail how Grandma had passed. She described the tone of her shrieks, the purple spots that had appeared on her skin over the course of a day, and how her spine had twisted and bent like an italicized question mark.

And did Grossma look just a little less wrinkled? More a raison than a prune? Perhaps it was a trick of the light, or perhaps my memory has declined. I was devastated by Grandma's death but pretended I was not, for my mom's sake. I didn't want her to see me cry.

Big boys don't cry, even when we die.

I don't cook fake, powdered potatoes at home. I bring a gas burner into Grossma's room, and I burn the potatoes into black, crusty crisps. I read somewhere burnt starch causes cancer. Not directly, but it can be a contributor, one of many carcinogens we never really consider. Then I put them in a blender, burnt skin and all, and feed the charred slush to her. Same with rice. One time a fed her burnt Shreddies. She lapped it up, spoonful by spoonful, as patient as a reptile. Rhythmic. Methodical. Pure instinct.

My dad wanted Grossma in professional care, far away from the family. We had an extra room in our home, one that up until this point in time had been a shrine to Patricia. They cleared the bedroom out, and everyone cried, even me.

It's hard enough to watch someone else cry, let alone your parents.

My mother wanted to put Patricia's things in storage, but my dad won this time, and Patricia's dusty toys and moth-eaten clothes went to the dumpster instead.

After all, you pick and choose your battles, right? My mom refused to budge on Grossma. And so, what remained of my sister, the stranger with the laughing eyes, went out, and Grossma came in.

My father was a quiet man. I got that from him, and my looks from my mom. He wasn't the kind of father to say, "I love you" or "I'm proud of you", but I could tell. Maybe not the proud part, after all he was a bus driver, not a lawyer per se, but at least something.

He used to paint as well, not the kind you'd find in an art gallery, but paint by numbers. He loved the routine and precision involved in knowing what to paint and where. I tried one of those paintings once, to make him happy, but I couldn't keep the paint in the lines.

My father despised Grossma.

At first, I didn't understand. Caring for her took time out of the day, obviously, and it wasn't always pleasant. I had to wipe her ass too, but you get used to it. She was family, and we didn't leave family behind, just like they didn't leave Patricia behind. It made me look at my dad differently, and I think Mom began to resent him. She was in an impossible position, forced to choose between family and family.

Eventually Dad pulled away from us. He wouldn't help with Grossma, so my mom had to do most of it, with me filling in the gaps when she couldn't get out of bed.

Sometimes I could hear yelling. I was nineteen years old, pretty much already a man, but I was still their child, and they would not fight in front of me. It doesn't matter how quiet you are when crockery begins to fly.

I slept in the basement, and their room was above mine. Some of what they said would drift down onto me as I lay awake, straining my ears to hear more. "Desperate," my father would say. "Unnatural. Suffocating. Irresponsible." Once I thought I heard him say "monster", but I couldn't be sure.

My mom's words were more difficult to hear, but her tone was unmistakable. That whining buzzsaw of rage, exhaustion and bewilderment.

One night, after a weary dinner around the table, my mom went straight to bed. I had the flu, so I was not allowed to go near Grossma, considering her immune system was as old as she was.

So I went to bed, and it was up to Dad to do the rounds.

I awoke to a piercing shriek in the night. I did not recognize it as human, perhaps the neighbor's cat had gotten into the house? No one thinks a man, let alone their father, can scream that high, that loud and that long.

I did not run upstairs, turn on the lights, and confront whatever horror had spawned such a shriek. I was too much of a coward, and my body was numb.

Footsteps stumbled through the kitchen above, someone going frantically through the kitchen drawers. I thought my parents must have been murdered. Finally, I acted, and I found my cellphone, one of those older flip phones, but it was dead. I scrambled around for the charger, but of course I had left it in the Honda like I always did.

The door to the basement flung open, and the tall outline of a figure stood at the top of the stairs and spoke in a hoarse voice. Looking back, I think Dad was sobbing.

"Get the hell out of here."

He left then. The front door slammed shut, and I heard the Honda start and the tires squeal, and just like that Dad was gone. I found the courage to go upstairs only after my mother began to wail.

Dad never came back. One time I received a birthday card with fifty dollars in it, but there was no return address, and all it said was "doing well." I knew it was not out of hate, or indifference. I think he was embarrassed and didn't know what to say or how to say it. I'm certain now that it was also out of self-preservation.

I sometimes wonder what he saw that night, when Mom and I were not there. Had Grossma opened her eyes, turned her head, and smiled? Had she reached over and singed my father's arm with her fingertips? Or had there just been too much of Mom, of the drinking and screaming and disappointment, more than any father could bear.

I Googled him two years ago, and all I found was an obituary. Prostate cancer. Imagine that.

I made Grossma a present for Christmas, in honor of my dad. I think he'd approve. You ever hear of Fiesta Ware? Terrible name, I know. They were a dinner set from the 1920s. They used uranium to glaze the plates and cups, 'cause it gave them a cool glow.

By World War II it was obvious why uranium wasn't the best choice to eat your soup out of, so understandably they don't sell those things anymore. Like I said, Value Village has some of everything. They know I'm a collector and keep me on speed dial.

I went and bought a large, sturdy baby mobile from Walmart and installed it to the ceiling, right above Grossma's face. A battery operated one, 'cause I like watching it move as I sit in the corner. Instead of smiling dolphins or plush planets, I used the red Fiesta Ware cups, those are the most potent. I made sure they hang real low, so they spin just above her. In the center, the part that doesn't turn, I taped a photo of my father, so he can check for tumors.

The rest of the Fiesta Ware I ground into powder and added it to the salt I use to season her burnt potatoes. There are other radioactive things from the 1920s too, you know. Makeup, creams, watches, all full of radium. You name it, they had it. You can get it on eBay, in the antique section, with a click. Grossma's new toothpaste is my favorite. I clean her teeth every hour, on the hour. Her pearly whites grew back after Dad left.

I bought another antique off eBay as well, an old Geiger counter, the kind that clicks. It was much cheaper than the ones they sell now, strange that an antique would cost hundreds of dollars while the new models cost thousands. I guess there isn't much appreciation for elderly things nowadays. I can relate to that full-heartedly.

The Geiger counter lets me test the radiation output of my projects. The Fiesta Ware didn't click as much as I hoped. Same with the toothpaste and make-up. The glowing watch clicked the most, so I put one on each of Grossma's wrists. Her ankles too.

I read something online about those watches, and it got me thinking about Grossma when she was young. She wasn't born in Canada, she came from the states, from Illinois. Grandma told me Grossma won some money in the courts, and never wanted to be in the USA again because of how they treated her when she was sick.

The history of those watches, though, I found that so interesting I printed out those pages and stuck them in my cancer notebook, the one I keep locked downstairs, to warn whoever comes next should I fail. Those watches didn't glow, not by themselves. They needed to be painted with radioactive paint.

The factory where it happened, they only used young women. They called them the Radium Girls. They would lick the paint brushes and get radium all over their insides. Some got so sick their bodies glowed. Others melted alive.

They were from Illinois, in the 1920s, just when Grossma would have been there. Those that lived long enough went to court and won money. Just like Grossma did. Those radium girls were all supposed to be dead. But what if Grossma got away? Left the country right after she won her money, and all those American tabloids stopped caring about her and focused on the local girls instead?

Suppose Grossma started to get better? Started to change? Suppose Grossma had... I don't know... some sort of way to trade her cancer for life? I can't blame Grossma for that, anymore than you can blame someone for getting rabies. But at some point, she had to realize the truth. She had to.

Mom changed lots after Dad left. She quit her job and lived on the small amount she could claim as a caregiver. She would start the day out in her wooden kitchen chair, right next to Grossma, and take her hand in her own the same as Grossma had done with Patricia.

By the end of the day, Mom's chair would be in the opposite corner, and sometimes she'd be staring into the corner, like there was something she was too afraid to face. Sometimes she'd be shaking, so I'd get her a bottle of whiskey, because nothing else helped after Dad left.

I'd come home from work and cook food for them both. I didn't burn the potatoes or rice back then, I loved Mom. Grossma though? During those years I tolerated her. Passive resentment, is that a term? If not, it should be.

It may sound crazy, absolutely nuts, but she didn't look like the Grossma I remembered from knocking down dominoes. In those days, she looked like Grandma, but not even the grandma I knew. Instead she resembled the grandma that held me in my baby photos.

Grossma's eyes didn't look dull anymore; now they glinted like the big chef's knife I used at work. Those eyes never moved, but somehow they still followed you when you moved.

Maybe that's why Mom kept pulling her chair back throughout the day, and why she turned it to the corner when the sun started to sink. Was she still thinking about ending up like Grossma? I think she knew, even back then, but she was too proud, too scared and too tired to do anything about it.

"Stevie," she said one day. "Stevie, take care of your Grossma. Remember when I'm gone."

"You're not going anymore, Mom."

"I'm so sorry, Stevie. I'm too much of a coward. I didn't know she could last so long."

"It's okay, Mom. I'll take care of her."

Mom never started on chemo like Grandma did, but her hair was falling out anyway, and her teeth too. I've heard stress sometimes does that. As she got worse, and the cancer kissed every cell in her body, I understood better what she meant by take care of her. Only now, it was take care of us.

When she was at her drunkest, she would lean in close and whisper her whiskey in my ear. "Pull the batteries from the smoke detector. Bring my cigarettes, a lighter, the newspaper and go to work."

I told myself it was the cancer talking. Remember how I said it gets in your brain, makes you think things? Say things? Do things? I couldn't risk leaving Mom alone on those weary days, so I'd call in sick.

"Stevie, can you help with something?" Mom asked one dreary morning. "I need you to feel under my arm."

I didn't know at first what she meant, not until I reached my hand into her armpit and cupped what felt like an apple. Not soft, as one would think a tumor should feel, but wickedly hard, with the skin around it pulled tight and as rough as sandpaper. I began to cry. Even if I could hold it in for Grandma, I wouldn't for Mom.

"Mom, I need to take you to the hospital. It's not too late to fix this."

"If they take me, you'll have to stay with Grossma, and I don't want to die alone. And she can't be alone." She spit those words out like venom from a cobra.

I started wondering, why did we watch Grossma? Was it love? Obligation? Or something else entirely. These thoughts danced jigs in my mind. If Grossma got up, and just walked out, what would she be to the world? Would she leave a slick trail of sickness and death behind her like a snail?

"You're starting to understand," she muttered as she patted my arm, never taking her eyes from Grossma. "I always loved you, Stevie, even if I couldn't show it in a way that mattered. I'm sorry. I'm sorry for everything. I thought I'd be strong enough. I misjudged."

"I know, Mom."

That night I pulled the loveseat up the stairs, one step at a time, and placed it into Grossma's room. I helped Mom get up from the chair - her legs were so skinny now - and laid her down on the soft cushions. Grossma's room was too small for Mom's bed, so it would have to do.

I knew what came next, I'd done it hundreds of times before. The plastic sheet went on the bottom and the absorbent one on top. The orthopedic pillow wrapped around the neck, so the head was always positioned just right. The bedpan got changed twice daily, then less and less over time. The blankets I stole from the hospital, the fuzzy ones that were warm but thin.

And I cared for them both. My hatred for Grossma grew as my mom's body declined. And Grossma? You would have thought she was my mom lying there, and the shriveled form on the couch Grossma. I remember her last words to me, her final request:

"Stevie. Stevie. Go fetch your father's shotgun from the basement. Two shells. The buckshot, not the bird. Go now, Stevie."

"Soon, Mom," I muttered. I didn't have the heart to tell her I had sold the shotgun a year prior to pay for her pain killers. "Soon, Mom, it will all be over soon."

Mom slept for two days before she finally died, her lungs rattling with blood and spit. That's when I made my resolve. Like I said, I could not kill Grossma outright without going to jail. She sure didn't look unhealthy, so naturally there would be an autopsy, and even if I was free from Grossma, I would suffer in jail for the rest of my life, and she would be at peace.

And would a coroner even believe she was Grossma?

I am a firm believer in an eye for an eye, or at least I am now. Grossma spread like cancer through my family, so it seems only fair that I give the cancer right back to her. We have our routines, from sunbathing, to tooth brushing, to burnt potatoes for supper topped up with uranium powder.

But it was not enough. I started getting tired, and then weary, and then exhausted. Not from work, and not from me and Grossma's daily rituals, after all, I had come to enjoy our time together.

No. I knew, even then, what Grossma had given me, and what I needed to do. If I was going to give her the cancer she deserved, I needed something big.

You don't take Fiesta Ware to a cancer fight.

I did a lot of research online, Googling words I didn't understand, looking up the definitions for those words, until I finally started to get it. When my vocabulary was up to par, I worked up the nerve to talk to the X-ray technicians while they ate their lunch in the cafeteria.

"Where do the X-rays come from?" I asked, hoping not to sound guilty.

One of the technicians stared at me as if I was a bug under a magnifying glass.

"From the X-ray machine," he said slowly.

I was an imbecile to him, but I pressed on for my mother's sake.

"What produces the X-rays, though. Do you use uranium? Radium?"

The technician looked shocked. Perhaps the dummy in the kitchen wasn't the moron he thought.

"Cobalt," he said, and with that he dismissed me with a confused look and returned to his pudding.

I scratched my head. Cobalt. It sounds so utterly bland, doesn't it? Plutonium. Uranium. Radium. These names inspire awe and fear. Cobalt inspires muted shades of blue.

I looked it up on Google, though. Turns out cobalt was perfect.

My timing could not have been better. That next week the diagnostics ward shut down for renovations. I guess the pipes were too corroded, and water was leaking into the hospice ward below.

Try to imagine lying in bed, cancer twisting your insides into pretzels, and now you have rusty water dripping into your upturned face? A perfect long-term plan for Grossma, but that kind of scandal could shut the hospital down. Better to close for a week.

I finished my night shift, and there was almost no one around. In the kitchen we wear clothes that look pretty similar to what the janitors wear, so no one paid me much mind when I wheeled a garbage can into the old diagnostics ward.

I chose the CT scan as it sounded more potent than an X-ray machine. I wasn't sure where the cobalt was, so I cut my way through the thickest part with shears I had bought from Home Hardware. When the shears no longer worked, I switched to an axe. Then a five-pound sledge.

I didn't even care if they found me, cause then they would simply march me over to the mental ward, and maybe Grossma would starve, and it wouldn't be my fault... but we talked about this. If I didn't come back, Grossma would have left anyway, somehow, and found another family to eat.

I found it right in the center. I used the Geiger counter to make sure, and let me tell you, that needle flew right to the top and it clicked away like the wheels of a bicycle.

If Fiesta Ware was the gun, this was a bazooka.

I wrenched it free with a crowbar, and held it in my hand. A lead rectangle of sorts, with an opening on top, almost like the shutter of a camera. The box weighed at least twenty pounds.

I took it home to Grossma. The loveseat was against the wall now, my mom a shriveled mummy still wrapped in her plastic sheets. She does not rot, but she does glow faintly blue during the darkest parts of the morning. Grossma must've been too greedy.

I used bolt cutters, a chisel and a hacksaw to cut the box open. It took me all night, and I had to change the hacksaw blade three times. There were two grey cylinders inside, six inches high, three inches across. I expected cobalt to be blue, but maybe that's just a myth.

I put one cylinder in each of Grossma's hands and folded her arms across her chest. She gripped them tight in her claws, all on her own.

I sat back in the kitchen chair. I couldn't seem to catch my breath. As I coughed and clutched my chest, I felt the difference. A painful twist. A thickness that wasn't there before. It took me time to pull off my shirt, the left side of my body so swollen it stretched the fabric.

And there was Grossma. Growing out of my chest, right over where my heart lay. A wrinkled and symmetrical mass, with two dimples that looked like eyes, stained hazel and leaking. The melon sized lump was pointed at the bottom, just like Grossma's chin. A tight fold of skin ran across the bottom like a thin, pinched mouth. Just like how I remember Grossma once looked, and not the young woman she is now.

I'd known for some time already. But now I could feel the cancer reaching its way down into my hip, my thighs, right to my swollen toes. I felt my genitals die, even though they'd never been of use anyways. I felt my skin sag like sails. The cramps in my shoulders and down my spine were the worst of all. A tingling, involuntary cringe.

I should never have left it this long. I wouldn't go to jail, because I'd be long dead, and I had to stop Grossma. I wished for my kitchen knife, but settled for the pillow.

I tried to stand, but the bones in my legs made sounds like Rice Krispies. I looked down at the tumor on my chest. It shuddered and expanded, distorting Grossma's face, laughing at me through my own flesh. I tried to push myself up from the chair with my arms, but my muscles were dead.

Grossma is watching me, her head turned to the side. She is sitting up, staring at me with her deep, hazel eyes. She stands with a grace I never knew her to possess, and her hospital gown hangs from her slender frame like the petals of an orchid.

She drops the cobalt to the ground, and it rolls under the love seat. Grossma looks twenty years old. She is both beautiful and terrible all at once. Her skin is radiant, and her cheeks positively glow.

First, she changes the sheets. Then, she picks me up and folds me into the hospital bed she has occupied for so long. There is pity in her eyes, but the kind of pity a child has when watching a farm animal slaughtered for the first time. Sad, but inconsequential next to her hunger, the blossoming truth of the food chain.

She pulls the chair up next to the bed, and takes my hand in hers.

Her fingers itch and burn my skin.

There are strange flashes of light now, like the ones you see when you close your eyes at night. I think my eyes are gone. I think they melted away when I got dizzy, and I can taste burnt potatoes on my tongue.

I left the Geiger counter on, and I can hear it screaming in the darkness.


  1. This is a m extremely well done, but totally bizarre story of….what? Mental illness? Delusional obsession? Pacts with the devil? Poor Steven is certain that his great grandmother is bringing about the doom of his family and each of his progenitors eventually come to that same realization, in their turn. It’s sort an inverse, sideways, oblong Picture of Dorian Gray. Grossma parlays her identity as a radium girl into a recipe for eternal life. (Oh! For additional info on radium girls, read the more factual “The Radium Girls,” by Chloe Hehir in this morning’s Literally Stories magazine, on line and for free. It is providential that both stories should be published at the exact same moment). Both stories are splendid examples of creative writing. Thank you so much, Donovan.

    1. BT - I was going to mention the LS story, but you are some time zones ahead of me. Don't know how to think of something that starts as a human horror story and then morphs into something else, much as the final living characters do. MM

    2. Thank you BT for your kind words on my story, I will check out The Radium Girls. Strange how it was published on the same day. If you want to see more works by me, please visit my Facebook page.

  2. Poor Steven. So much loss. And the limits of familial empathy. Is it all delusion? I don’t know. But it’s creepy and intertwined. Well done!

  3. I enjoy the uncertainty - is Steven going insane or is Grossma somehow causing cancer to all those around her? This was compelling yet profoundly unsettling to read.

    1. Thank you. I like to think of myself as a profoundly unsettling fellow ;) I’m glad you liked it.

  4. A very creepy story. It keeps you guessing. Well done, Donovan.

  5. I prefer to believe that Grossma is actually getting younger through killing off the family members. The moral reversal reverberates more that way. She should have died as a Radium Girl and none of the family would have existed. A woman nurturing herself instead of her family. Nothing creepier than that! Radium Girls is a great, disturbing read. I also have to give it a shout out.

  6. I found this compelling reading as the protagonist's obsession (justified or otherwise) about his grandmother consumed him - much like a cancer in that sense. As a long piece, this could have been quite incessant, but the writing style is able to avoid that and keep the reader engaged. I thought Bill's comment the Picture of Dorian Gray was interesting because when I read the following 'My father always told me, one death is a tragedy. Twice is an awful, awful coincidence. Three times?' I was reminded of the Oscar Wilde quotation from The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”