the writing disorder


brett burba

New Fiction


by Brett Burba

      Marcy overhears one of the nurses calling it a halo, but the man sitting across the hospital waiting room doesn’t look anything like an angel. If he even has wings, they’re cramped underneath the plastic vest strapped to his upper body. Four steel rods shoot up from his shoulders, fencing in a steel ring around his head. Already, Marcy can’t wait to tell her friends. Sunday school never covers any of the good stuff, like robot angels.
      Marcy fixates on the ring.
      It doesn’t hover like a halo should. It doesn’t glow gold either.
      Marcy’s eyes widen. The halo is set with 2-inch pins drilled straight into the robot angel’s temple, medieval torture disguised as a modern orthopedic practice. Each quarter turn of every screw serves as stability for his fractured vertebrae, or maybe penance for past sins.
      Marcy looks down, touching her own forehead, praying she doesn’t find any screws there.
      Good Housekeeping lays open across Mom's lap. Mom stares at the article’s title, “10 Tips for Talking to Your Kids,” rereading it over and over because her mind won’t follow her eyes to the next line without wandering off. Today is Marcy’s appointment for an MRI.
      Mom catches Marcy feeling around the side of her head with her fingertips. She leans in.
      "Marcy..." Mom stretches the long "e" of her name even longer, as if holding on to that last syllable will delay the answer. "Your head hurt again?”
      Marcy’s migraines always start as tiny, star-shaped sparkles in the corner of her eyes, collecting like snowflakes until her periphery whites out altogether. Last Wednesday, Mom received a call from the school nurse. Marcy wouldn’t open her eyes during science class. When asked what was wrong, she said here eyes were outgrowing her head. Clenching her eyelids would keep her eyes from popping out. At first, Mom bargained with the pediatrician. Marcy’s too young for migraines; too young for an MRI and whatever condition that machine thinks it’ll find in her seven-year-old brain. But the pediatrician insisted, and after that incident on Wednesday, Mom promised she would make it better.
      “No Mommy I’m ok. It’s that guy over there with the halo thing.”
      Marcy locks her wide eyes on the robot angel. The pins in his temple jut out like stern index fingers, pointing; shaming little girls who stare. It’s not polite, but manners don’t account for encounters with one of God’s mechanical messengers. Probably he’s just scheduled for a tune-up before flying back to Heaven. Those kids at school will never believe her.
       A nurse emerges from the hallway next to Marcy.
      Does she mean Robot?
      He moves with all the grace of a Dorothy-less Tin Man. His brace casts a cage-like shadow over Marcy as he approaches her side of the waiting room. Marcy reaches for her necklace, pinching a dangling cross between her thumb and middle finger; a First Communion gift from Dad. Whenever her head hurts real bad, Dad rubs her back and hums The Little Mermaid soundtrack. That same deep voice that soothes her to sleep during a migraine also says that the tiny cross is faith, and as long as you have that, you’re safe.
      Another nurse walks into the waiting room.
      Marcy follows Mom to another area of the hospital, nurse leading the way. A technician greets them at the radiology department. She explains that little kids have a hard enough time staying still for 5 minutes, let alone a 30 minute MRI. Marcy will be sedated. It’s standard procedure with patients her age. Mom signs the agreement. She bends and kisses Marcy on the forehead.
      “Okay, honey. Don’t be scared. This is going to help us make your headaches better. Give me a hug.”
      The technician takes Marcy’s hand and leads her down the hall into a dim-lit room. A giant white tunnel towers over her.
      This must be the MRI thing all the grown-ups have been talking about.
      The machine waits like a gaping mouth; a bed extends from lip of the opening like an outstretched tongue, taunting unsuspecting victims, daring them to enter. Marcy looks over her shoulder toward the doorway.
      Mom isn’t coming.
      She creeps closer to the tunnel, twirling the tiny cross between her index finger and thumb, hoping Dad is right. The technician lets out a quick gasp.
      “Oh, sweetie. We’ll have to take your necklace off in case it’s metal.”
      Marcy steps back from the machine, pouting. She slides the tiny cross back and forth along the necklace. Without it, the giant mouth will swallow her whole.
      “It’s okay. You can give it to your mom – she’ll keep it safe for you. Go ahead. She’s outside this room just down the hall.”
      When Marcy returns, the technician leads her to the tongue of the tunnel where she’s supposed to lay. Marcy tenses her arms and legs, stiffening her back against the bed in an effort to stay as still as possible. Even the slightest movement might anger the machine. Her eyes dart across the roof of the tunnel’s mouth. It’s all white with curved surfaces. No visible teeth, but that doesn’t mean it won’t tear her apart. It can probably sense her breaths getting shorter, quicker.
      An anesthesiologist approaches with a silver tray of plastic tubes, thin rubber hoses, and hypodermic needles.
      “Ok Marcy. I’m really sorry but you’re going to feel 2 little pinches. The first one is something that will help us see your brain better. The second one is just some medicine that’ll make you sleepy, ok? It won’t hurt after the pinch. I promise.”
      The anesthesiologist locates a vein and the needle pokes through. Marcy tilts her head backward, peering deep into the machine’s throat. She thinks about Pinocchio and how scared Geppetto must have felt when Monstro gulped down his entire ship. Copper floods her tongue while a second needle pokes through her skin. The tunnel is only 7 feet deep, but maybe the machine extends downward, the rest of its belly lurking beneath the floor. Marcy swears she can hear it gurgling. She squirms and lifts her head, ready to jump from the tongue and run, but a sudden tiredness overwhelms her.
      Starting in her chest, warmth rushes in waves to her arms and legs, tiny tides collapsing into her fingertips and toes.
      “Relax, Marcy. You’re doing so good.”
      Marcy nods, eyelids fluttering. Pressed between her tongue and the roof of her mouth, the tiny cross dislodges. Her tongue relaxes under the sedative’s influence. The cross slides toward the back of her mouth. Her throat, lined with muscles lulled into rest, opens wider. Without meaning to, Marcy swallows and falls asleep.


      At first, the technician wasn’t sure what happened. She heard a strange pinging sound echoing from the machine, like metal on metal.
      The technician takes Mom to a private room. Inside, she and another doctor take turns explaining the accident, how the MRI exerts an intense magnetic force, and how that magnetic pull overpowered the thin barrier of skin between Marcy’s throat and collar bone.
      Mom drops to her knees.
      The doctor’s voice is a dial tone, far away noise delivered at a steady frequency.
      “The technician found Marcy with the base of her throat punctured and bleeding open. There was a tiny stained cross next to her body.”

Brett Burba is a marketing professional who recently graduated from Illinois State University. He lives in Bolingbrook, Illinois.

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