“I think I will go to the hospital. My arm is paining me.” My father’s voice. I heard him from some shallow corner of a quiet, hateful sleep. I imagined waking up somewhere different. I opened my eyes and was not somewhere different. I had no command over this place or the people in it. And yet, for the first time in more than three weeks, I felt the mark of the Twelve-tongued God, an X followed by two vertical slashes, burning on my back. My muse, my power, was awake again.
“What?” I asked.
“Can you drive?” my father asked.
“Okay,” I said. I got ready. My father sat on a white plastic chair in the kitchen near the microwave and the hot plate. The only ways we had to cook. Beneath his leather sandals was a thin puddle of water that had leaked, as it did every day, from the shower in the adjacent bathroom. It was a basement. Dark mold had to be attacked with bleach regularly. But it never died. I hated this place we lived in and had for a very long time. My father scooped oatmeal into a bowl.
“Arm pain can be linked to other problems,” he said. I tried very carefully to tie my shoes. “Better for you to drive.” This was all long before we knew of the cancer nesting in his bones.
“You’ll be fine,” I said.
“I know, but just in case,” he finished through a mouthful of oatmeal. While I waited for him to eat, I grabbed the latest issue of a small journal of stories and poems called Rabid Bird and one of my notebooks. The Twelve-tongued God beckoned in the form of the heat I felt on my back, and while I waited for my father to finish his oatmeal, I tried, finally, to write. I scribbled and felt the free feeling of fire in my bones. Transported into a world where I had command and anything was possible.
“All right, let’s go,” my father said too quickly. I closed my notebook and followed him outside. The drive was long and tired. My father explained to me what the doctors had told him when he’d called earlier. Essentially, he was now old enough that anything could be a big deal. They told him where to go while his normal hospital underwent renovations. We crossed the bridge. There was a spot pretty close. My father got out of the car and went into the hospital. “I’ll find you,” I said. I straightened the car out, then fed the meter. I walked toward the entrance thinking, Remember this: the first time you drove a parent to a hospital.
For the first time in more than three weeks, I felt the mark of the Twelve-tongued God, an X followed by two vertical slashes, burning on my back.
“What are you looking for?” said a woman who I hoped knew I was already lost and scared. She stood in front of me in purple scrubs and colorful nurse-type shoes. Her brown hair was spun into something that let everyone know she was very busy and hadn’t slept in a long time. The tone of her voice, spiced with the Bronx, said I was one of many inconveniences in her life.
“I’m looking for my dad; he just came through here a second ago.”
“Is that all?” She tapped her clipboard with a pen. “What department?” I had no idea what department my father was looking for, so I told her the truth about that. “Well, I don’t know how you don’t know, but —” She was about to take great pleasure in telling me that I was in this situation due to my own incompetence and that even though she could not help me, she herself was very competent. I walked away from her before she could finish.
Down the first hallway and to the left was a room that looked like the main lobby of a hotel. At the front desk was a computer and two empty seats. A woman in a suit and badge was pacing back and forth in front of the desk.
“Hi, I’m looking for my dad,” I said.
“Well, there’s a whole lotta dads in this place,” the security guard said.
“He probably just came by asking questions, too. Black guy. I’m sure he just came down this way.”
“Check in emergency — that’s where I’ve been sending everybody who doesn’t know where the heck they’re going.” She paused so I could be certain she was ridiculing me. “You’re gonna go down this hall, make a left the first chance you get. You’ll be in radiology. Then walk straight through there and make another left, and you’ll basically be there. You’ll see.”
“Thanks so much,” I said. Soon I was staring at a small entryway sign that read radiology 1. In the hall there was an extremely old man in a wheelchair. He groaned steadily. His white skin looked stretched and spotty. It seemed someone had forgotten him or maybe was using him to prop open the door. There were so many tubes going in and coming out of him that I couldn’t imagine where they began or ended. I walked past quickly. Farther down the same hall, a black guy in a wheelchair stared in my direction with eyes so empty I thought they might suck something out of me. I made a left, then saw a pair of double doors. A lot of healthy, able-bodied people talk about how much they hate the hospital. I’ve said it, too, I guess.
White coats and scrubs power walked in all directions. To my right was a family of six or seven. I imagined them Italian. It seemed they were waiting on news that everyone already knew was going to be bad. They clung to one another. They pointed frustrated looks at their shoes.
“Dad,” I said as I stepped through the double doors. My father looked at me, then returned to arguing with an attendant seated behind a lectern in the corner of the emergency room. “I called and was told I could meet with someone since my doctor isn’t in. And now I am here, and they are telling me to wait in the emergency room. They told me to come right away.” My father was speaking the way he did to a rude waiter or a careless cashier.
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know who you called. Things are a little hectic today. Please sign the sheet,” said the attendant.
“I have.” My father did one of his I’m-smarter-than-you laughs. “Already signed.”
“Then please wait like everybody else.” It was unseemly for anyone who wasn’t about to die right that second to make any kind of scene in the emergency room is what he was trying to say.
“Dad,” I said. “Just wait.” My father stopped and looked visibly calmer. He sat. I gripped my notebook and the journal. I felt the mark tingle on my back. “Can you call again?” I asked.
“I have already. Doctor Koppen isn’t in, and now they don’t know how to direct me to another doctor. Imagine!”
“I’ll go back and see if I can find some kind of directory,” I said. What I wanted to do was sit and reread a story called “Free Barabbas” from the latest issue of Rabid Bird. It was pretty good, the story. I was especially interested in it because it had won a contest I had also entered. I’d received an email saying that though they’d loved my submission, “Does Anybody Want a Kitten?” I was still a loser. My story was about a family and all the things that happened to them and their new kitten: sometimes the kitten is hiding under the new bed, sometimes the kitten is sick, other times it’s not and the family just appreciates its furry innocence. At one point the kitten runs away, and the family thinks their new home will never feel the same again.
The winning story concerned a guy who, in his own round-about way, confronts his past through a series of events in his old neighborhood. It wasn’t so much what it was “about,” but rather the way the narrator was so funny and so mean and, somehow, so honest, that made it an awesome story, the kind you don’t forget. It also happened to be nothing like anything I could ever write.
In “Does Anybody Want a Kitten?” the kitten eventually comes back, but she’s pregnant.
The sick feeling growing in my throat matched the burning on my back. It was a warning. My time was running out. The Twelve-tongued God had promised me I would make our lives better. That I could use the power it had granted me to change things. It wouldn’t matter what I did if my father wasn’t there to see what I’d done.
I got up. I left my father sitting in his brown coat with his hands on his lap. I hoped he wouldn’t ask me where I was going. He said nothing. Through the double doors, the eyes of the Italian family jumped up at me. Their eyes held something I would normally take as a look of pity, but then and there, I’m not sure what it was.
After every other word, it pulled off a mask to reveal yet another beautiful new face.
I walked back through radiology. The black guy was still there, alone. The other man, the one strangled by tubes and age, was also still there, but now he was wearing a Mets cap. I felt certain someone was using him as a hat rack. In the front lobby, the security guard looked nervous, then tough, when I approached.
“Is there, maybe, a directory kind of person? Or someone who can help me find which department I’m supposed to be in?” I asked. I pointed to the empty chairs behind the lobby desk. “Is someone going to be sitting in one of those seats soon?”
“Not today, nobody’s coming. But if you don’t know the department you need, then you probably wouldn’t get much help anyway.”
“When people come in and are trying to figure out where to go, who do they usually speak to? My dad called and he spoke to someone who told him to come in, but now that we’re here, we can’t figure out where to go. He normally goes to Riverhead, but they transferred him here.”
“Who did he speak to?”
“He says her name was Martha.”
The security guard almost smiled. “Just Martha?”
“Yes. I’m just wondering, if we call this hospital who are the people we would speak to? Who would help us?”
“There’s a lotta phones in this hospital. You’re better off going to the emergency room.”
The security lady adjusted her pants and made a sound. “Thanks so much,” I said, and walked back the way I came.
The XII on my back burned. I would have to write in the emergency room.
I sat next to my father. I quickly explained that in terms of guidance this hospital was not going to help us. My father shook his head and muttered something about how this would never happen at his usual hospital. I opened my notebook. Quietly, I prayed to the Twelve-tongued God. I looked around. Across from us was someone so old they didn’t really have a gender anymore and a Hispanic woman about my father’s age. I noticed a puddle beneath her seat. I didn’t know what the liquid was. Seeing it in the emergency room made me feel queasy. It could have been water.
“What are you writing?” my father asked. I looked up from my notebook.
“I don’t know,” I said. Which was the truest thing anyone had ever said. It was still new for me to write in front of my parents — or anyone. It felt like announcing I was running for some huge office as a Green Party candidate.
“Well, what is it about?” My father turned toward me and winced as he did. “You write a lot now. What do you write about?” His curiosity stunned me. I also really had no idea how to answer.
What I could never tell my father was that I’d given myself to the Twelve-tongued God. It had happened many years before. We’d been in a house that the bank would soon want back. The nights were dark because the gas and electric company had decided enough was enough. I’d learned that many of the things I loved, the comforts that made me feel good about myself, could disappear very slowly and also suddenly. I’d learned to hate then. To hate others for having things, to hate myself for not. One day, like an angel, the Twelve-tongued God emerged from the midnight black around me, as mysterious and vital as my own breath.
“I can give you new eyes. Eyes that will work, that won’t cry. I can put your hurt to use,” Twelve-tongue said. “I can give you what you want.” After every other word, it pulled off a mask to reveal yet another beautiful new face. Its voice sounded like every voice I’d ever heard speaking at once. “I can give you the power to be anywhere. To heal the world. To own time. To turn lies to truth. To make day into night and night into day.” I nodded viciously. “You will have the power to change everything, to make the life you want.”
“What do I have to do?” I asked.
“You are not yet ready,” said the Twelve-tongued God, revealing a new mask, one that wore a deep frown and jubilant eyes. Then it disappeared.
I waited. After we lost the house, we spent a year cramped into a small apartment. Then we were displaced again.
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The night I saw another pink eviction notice, I prayed to that mysterious being that had found me those years before. Twelve-tongue appeared again in the basement we called a home. It smiled and frowned and laughed and cried. It stood in front of me. I watched it closely. As if to impress me, it winked and where before there had been a hot plate now there was a stainless-steel oven and range. The god laughed and the hot plate was back, the range gone.
I begged on my knees for its power.
“Serve me and you will live in a different world forever.”
“I’ll do anything,” I said. I could feel the skin on my back beginning to sear. I could smell my own burn.
“Then prove it.” The Twelve-tongued God opened its mouth and reached a hand in. From its throat, it pulled out what looked like a human hand but was actually the hilt to a sharp blade, the edge growing from the hand’s middle finger.
“Please,” I begged. The god watched me closely; the face it wore had an insane smile and drowning eyes. It held the knife and stared at me. Then it stuck its tongue out and quickly cut it off. I watched its bleeding mouth.
“Fo eve,” said the Twelve-tongued God, a new tongue growing in its mouth. “You wi ver be the same.”
“Please,” I begged again. The god handed me the blade. I stuck my tongue out and placed the sharp edge near my bottom teeth. I pulled up and screamed. My tongue fell, and the Twelve-tongued God reached down and snatched it before it could hit the floor.
“The pact is made,” the Twelve-tongued God said, and it stuffed its own newly cut tongue into my mouth. I wish I could share what it was like to feel the new tongue weaving into my flesh. I felt the Roman twelve brand into my back. Suddenly, I could see in the dark. Day became night. I felt free.
“Thank you,” I said.
“We’ll see,” the Twelve-tongued God said as it popped my old tongue into its mouth and chewed. Then it disappeared.
That night I wrote my first story. I saw I was chained to the new power. I had to stay with the story. Work it harder and harder until it was something greater than I could have imagined. From that day forward, I prayed to Twelve-tongue every night and every morning, asking for more tongues. For sharper tongues. When I didn’t write, my brand pulsed and ached. When I wrote badly, it screamed fiery chords. But then, when I made sentences that lived, it quieted and I could feel my ability growing. Still, I craved more tongues, new worlds to live in, and more power to change the one I was in now. I loved it. It was very lonely.
A nurse called out sounds that we both understood as her attempt to pronounce our last name.
“What kind of stories do you write?” my father asked again.
“It’s about a guy who’s hurt, I guess,” I answered.
“Oh, that could be interesting,” my father said. This was the most we’d ever discussed my writing.
“I don’t know,” I said. Someone attempted to call our name again. My father looked at me, then got up. He left his long coat on the seat beside me. I scooped the mess of brown cloth onto my lap.
“I’ll wait here,” I said.
My father didn’t say anything before he disappeared through the double doors.
I exhaled. I closed my notebook and sat back in the emergency-room chair. I pressed my eyes shut. I could hear the quiet chatter of the healthy and sick.
When will I be a winner?
After a while, I opened my eyes. A couple came in supporting each other with interlocking elbows. I couldn’t tell the afflicted from the crutch. They found a seat in the room’s corner near the attendant and his lectern.
“Did you ever find your mother?” The nurse I’d seen when I’d first entered the hospital was standing in front of me. I remembered her color-splashed scrubs and shoes.
“It was my dad, but yeah,” I said. The nurse smiled. “Was it? What if it was your mother?” the nurse said. She winked once with her left eye. Then she winked again. I looked down. My father’s coat was gone. In its place was a black coat with a flourish of black sequins. It smelled lightly of a fruity perfume.
“No,” I said. “It’s my father. It is my father I’m waiting for.”
“Fine,” said the nurse. The Bronx accent waned, and a voice that could be anything took its place. “At least you know that much.” I was again holding a brown trench coat that smelled like talcum powder and sweat.
I stared at the Twelve-tongued God, overjoyed and afraid as usual.
“Why now?” I asked. “Why now?” I wanted to yell but didn’t.
“Don’t be silly,” said the Twelve-tongued God. She put her stethoscope in her ears, reached over my shoulder, and pulled my shirt up. She pressed cold metal on my mark. Since I’d first gotten it, the mark had grown and evolved. Around the XII was a dark mural of shadow figures and words I couldn’t understand. “You’re the one who’s neglected me; I wasn’t even sure it was you.” The Twelve-tongued God smoothed my shirt back down, then pinched my cheek.
“I’ve been trying,” I said. My fists were clenched. “Really,” said the Twelve-tongued God. She reached down and unclenched my fists. “Are you really trying?”
“You have no right to —”
“I am the right to,” the Twelve-tongued God said. “Aren’t I the one who made you something? Or maybe you’d rather cook on a hot plate for the rest of your life?”
“No,” I said. I was on the verge of tears. The Twelve-tongued God sighed deeply. I was, um . . . a burning pulled at the corners of my eyes. “It’s not easy for me. I need more from you. I need more tongues. I’m not good enough yet. I want to go all the way.”
“Then go all the way,” the Twelve-tongued God said to me. “Make what you want to see.” The Twelve-tongued God reached down and kissed me on the forehead. “Really?” said the Twelve-tongued God.
I focused. I imagined what I wanted and what should be. And as I did, I saw that actually, no, the Twelve-tongued God hadn’t kissed me on the forehead. That didn’t happen. Instead, she grabbed me by the face and pressed a long hard lick up my neck, stopping at my ear. It felt warm and wet, like so many good things. My XII glowed and pulsed. “Don’t be boring,” the god said as she started to leave. I wanted to ask, When will I be a winner? And though the thought never reached my throat, the Twelve-tongued God turned to me just before disappearing through the double doors, and said, “When you win something.”
I felt the power of the Twelve-tongued God spinning in my gut, looking for a place to go. I got up, carrying my father’s coat in my arms. I needed to feed the meter. I wanted to check in with my father but realized he’d left his cell phone in the jacket. I sighed. Then I remembered that there were people around me who might not see their loved ones ever again. I walked out through the double doors.
The Italian family was still there, though I could tell that since I’d seen them last they’d either heard the terrible news they’d been anticipating or that the lack of any news at all had finally broken them. One woman in the family was crying into another’s chest while a younger man rubbed both of their shoulder blades. I slipped by them quickly. If there was a ticket, it would be my fault.
The old men in radiology were as forgotten as ever. I made a point of noticing the old white guy exploding with tubes and the empty-looking black man because I felt like their not giving me anything meant I was to forget them, and I did not want to forget them yet.
The security guard who took pleasure in not helping me was adjusting her belt and strolling along a tiny circle. Outside, it was alive and sunny in stark contrast to the hospital, which was bright but dead. There were people walking around everywhere. None of them had any idea that maybe my father was sick and damaged. I swapped the old ticket for a new one. Adulthood is paying the meter on time, I thought. I walked back toward the emergency room.
Inside, the security guard was now arguing with a woman in a tight suit who seemed to want to make a show of things. I was happy to see angry people.
Back in radiology, the old men were still dying. I continued to the emergency room. On the way, the colorful nurse walked by; she yawned into her clipboard then looked at a watch on her wrist. I tried and failed to make eye contact.
The Italian family was with a doctor now. They huddled around him, as if he were a quarterback explaining the face of the next down. I stood away from them. Nurses and doctors rushed around. Trying to help when, really, what could they do? From the looks of things, that’s what the doctor was telling the family: he wasn’t a miracle worker despite the white coat and the machines. Then, suddenly, he rose up out of the huddle and pointed at me. He said, “That young man there can end your suffering. He is putting you through this. Maybe for no reason at all. He doesn’t know why, and he doesn’t even have the heart to end it. He’s just going to —” I pretended I didn’t hear the doctor say anything and continued back into the emergency room. I felt Twelve-tongue’s hand like hot oil washing over my back. I wanted to tell the family that they mattered and weren’t just grim decor. I didn’t know how to tell them that, so I sat down and opened my notebook and tried to direct the fear and fire I felt in my body onto the page.
I looked up from the notebook.
Another older woman was coming in with what had to be her husband. They’d been together so long they were basically twins. The same hunched backs and thick glasses and drooping, tired faces. She used a blue rolling walker. I tried to ignore the couple and think. The old lady with the walker told the woman at the information window she’d been feeling very faint for the last three days. I could see that she and her husband were pretending they didn’t know the “faintness” was her soul stretching out before a great marathon.
This is the hospital where sickness ends.
Is the family of — I heard something like my last name over the screeching PA system and decided it must be my turn to speak with the lady at the information window.
“Hi.” I told her my name and that I was the son. I smiled at the old couple. That was my way of pretending with them.
“Do you have your father’s insurance information?” the woman at the window asked.
“I don’t,” I said. “I can go find him and get it,” I added quickly. “But I’m not sure where he is, exactly.”
“He should be in bed fifteen,” the woman said. “Just down the hall.”
“Fifteen?” I asked. “Like, he’s in an actual bed?” I could no longer pretend I wasn’t afraid.
“Bed fifteen,” she repeated.
As I passed the Italian family, I put my notebook, the journal, and my father’s coat down and did a cartwheel to show them that kind of thing was still possible. They looked up at me, unamused. Then they returned to their sorrowful hugs and mutterings. I picked my stuff back up. I found my father wearing a dotted hospital gown. He’d spent most of his life in a tie. We stared at each other for a while. There were beeping sounds everywhere. He was carving out the last of a cup of Jell-O.
“They gave you food?” I asked.
“Well,” my father said. “I was hungry.”
“So what’s happening? I need your insurance stuff.” My father asked me to find his pants, which were somewhere beneath his hospital bed. I pulled two cards from his wallet and waited for him to answer me.
“I’m still waiting for the — well, there she is now.”
The colorful nurse trotted toward us in a way that made me uneasy. She rubbed the back of my neck as she walked by me.
“Is this your son?” the Twelve-tongued God said to my father.
“Yes, can’t you tell by how handsome he is?”
“I can, I can,” said the Twelve-tongued God. She winked at me and I saw diminished blood cells, emaciation, chemotherapy, hair loss, diapers, more chemotherapy, fading fathers and heartsick sons grabbing, grabbing with weak hands for anything. Words that tried to make something pretty out of shit. “You must be wondering what’s going on?” the god continued.
“We are,” my father said. He laughed weakly.
“Okay, it looks like” — the Twelve-tongued God seemed to be looking at her clipboard, but she peered over the edge — nothing is more boring than a happy ending, her eyes said. I stared back and tried not to flinch from the gaze of my creator. I took a deep breath.
“Your blood pressure was a little higher than we’d like, so we checked that out, but other than that, everything looks great. After you give them your information, you’ll be free to go.” The Twelve-tongued God smiled at my father, then looked at me with a face both bored and disgusted.
Once my father was dressed, we began to walk back to the emergency room to handle his paperwork. “I can do it,” I said. “You go back; the meter’s almost up.”
“Okay, good idea,” he said, and disappeared in the direction of radiology.
For what I hoped would be the last time, I walked by the grieving family. I stepped into their family circle. The pain in my back, the fire of the XII, made it difficult to walk. I spoke clearly. “Whoever you think you’ve lost is not lost. Go home.” They looked at me like I was a static-garbled television. “Go home, whoever it is, they’re alive and well.”
“How?” a woman said.
“It just is. They just are. Strange miracle. And now you’ve realized the power of family bonds. Everyone wins.”
“It’s so unlikely,” said a man, who I assume was some kind of uncle. “Feels almost cheap?” he said, grinning despite himself.
“Well, yeah,” I said. “It is what it is.”
The colorful nurse walked by. “Coward!” she screamed at a nearby doctor. I skipped into the emergency room. All of the broken people there groaned and groaned. I made my voice big and announced to the masses, “There’s been a great miracle. None of you are hurt. Go home.” They looked up at me and blinked. Some smiled weakly, but none moved.
“Please be decent,” the attendant hissed. He looked at me with pleading eyes.
“Please, sir,” said the clerk at the window who needed my father’s insurance information.
“Here you go,” I said, and threw the insurance cards at her. She stared at me, and then went to pick the cards up from the floor. While she was bent over, I leaned over the threshold and punched the intercom. I spoke into it, and my voice flew all over the hospital. “You are all healed. Go home. This is the hospital where sickness ends. Everything will be fine, and you are happier than you’ve ever been. Leave. Everyone is good. Especially you.”
“Sir,” the attendant said. But I was already running toward radiology. The tube-tied old man was very, very slowly pulling himself free of the plastic. The other man was also sitting up, eyes opened and locked on me. I felt my XII like it was a new brand.
“That’s it,” I said. “Go forth and be healed. I’m trying to help you.” I was happy. As happy as a sunflower in a field of other less radiant sunflowers. The man with tubes crawled to the edge of his bed, then fell flat on his face toward the tile floor. I screamed, “No.” And the man, dislodged finally from all the tubes, froze in the air, a weightless icon, a displaced swimmer who waded in the open air. With great effort, he looked up at me as he floated. “This is the hospital where the affliction is flight,” he said. Then he returned to the call of gravity and fell hard back down to the ground.
He did not move once he was there. The other man never took his eyes off me. “This is that place,” he said.
I ran away toward the entrance. A sea of hospital-gown-wearing humans surrounded the security guard. She tried desperately to direct groaning patients back to wherever they belonged. She caught my eye and scowled as I ran by.
“Please, no running,” the security guard yelled.
Outside, my father was sitting in the driver’s seat. I was relieved to be a passenger. From all the entrances and exits of the hospital, hobbled, hurt people were emerging. They were mostly old, anywhere else they’d be untreatable, and still they made their way out into the sunshine. The affliction is flight, I thought with a hazy focus, the only kind I could muster with the exploding pain I felt in my back. And suddenly, just as they stepped through the threshold into the outside, the old sick bodies rose into the air and floated a few inches above the ground; there they hovered, weightless, immaculate, wearing thin hospital gowns and colorful socks. They were in the air for almost ten seconds, taking careful steps forward before they fell back to the earth. Their ankles gave out immediately. On the ground, they crawled like babies, if they moved at all. More stepped forward, flew, then fell. It kept happening. It kept happening. I turned to my father.
He stared at all the people flooding and floating out of the hospital. He shook his head and said, “What have you done?”
“It’s about a hospital where people can fly,” I said.
“What have you done?” he begged.
* * *
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is from Spring Valley, New York. He graduated from SUNY Albany and went on to receive his MFA from Syracuse University. He was the ’16-’17 Olive B. O’Connor fellow in fiction at Colgate University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Guernica, Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing, Printer’s Row, Gravel, and The Breakwater Review, where he was selected by ZZ Packer as the winner of the 2nd Annual Breakwater Review Fiction Contest. Friday Black is his first book.
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