The first thing his mother does when, unannounced, he walks inside her house is put down her phone and look him up and down as if his first semester of college has lasted five years. “I’m fine,” he says. “No headaches.”
Relief settles upon her like dust, and she coughs softly before she speaks. “Everybody’s fine until they’re not,” she says. “You’re nineteen. Your age doesn’t pay that any mind, but you know better now.”
“The doctors keep an eye on me,” he says. “You know there’s another MRI in two months.”
“I think I’ll be holding my breath until February.”
“I will, too, if another headache comes.”
“After that, I’ll be holding my breath until August,” she says, and she remembers speaking to him in the darkness of his room, the door closed against the hallway’s dim light. Always, she asked in murmurs. “Those terrible migraines,” she says. “Just after graduation instead of a senior trip. Nobody knew how bad until.”
“I thought it was a brain tumor even though it seemed impossible. But now I have a scar to prove it.” He takes a breath, considering, before he adds, “And the video.”
“’For posterity,’ they said. “A movie like you were on Santa’s lap instead of being operated on. And you, of all people, went ahead and watched yourself lying there right next door to dying.”
“I watched it a second time during finals. Maybe you’re ready to watch it now?”
“The surgery? No, thank you.”
Her son’s face flushes in a way that gladdens her. “Well,” he says, “I sent it to you. You don’t have to watch, but you’ll have it.”
“Sent it when?”
“Five minutes ago before I got out of the car. Do you want to? You can stop it if you hate it.”
“It took seven hours,” she says, but she allows him to pick up her phone.
“The video’s only four minutes and thirty-nine seconds,” he says. “You can’t even tell it’s me.”
There is nothing to do but nod, she thinks. He is so in love with his rescue, and she is terrified it will not last.
“See?” he says, as the film begins. “Because it’s so close up and starts after they have my skull open, that could be anybody.”
She watches from behind him, her hands on his shoulders. The instruments are silver. When they reflect the light, she feels the room’s air turn metallic and heavy as if the ceiling might give way to rain. The video has no sound.
“I wonder what they were saying,” he says. She leans forward and notices the tweezers have serrated ends for better gripping. He wants to explain that this is what there are no words for, and says, “There, those yellow specks are bits of the tumor coming out.”
Leaning over him, she touches the scar on the back of his head where his hair won’t grow, the place where he will not feel her fingertips. “They said there was a chance you’d go blind because of where the tumor was.”
“Afterwards, they kept me awake all night shining a light in my eyes. I didn’t sleep at all.”
“And something about motor skills.” Everything in this room, she thinks, is listening. Each object wants to know and remember.
“That’s where the thing was, right where coordination gets its messages from.”
The tweezers keep grabbing and pulling. When blood obscures the wound, it’s absorbed by gauze.
She turns away as if she has to cough again. When, after a few seconds pass, she looks back, she says, “One hundred brains have disappeared from a hospital in Texas, the ones who were demented, the ones the doctors study.”
He lays one hand upon hers. “Somebody misplaced them.”
She looks at his hand, and the movement of his fingers is a miracle. “If they were stolen one brain at a time, it would mean nobody cared.”
“All at once, then,” he says, lifting his hand.
“One of those brains that’s gone belongs to Charles Whitman.”
“You knew him?” he says.
The grabbing and tugging goes on and on. There are hours more of this, she knows. “Charles Whitman,” she says, “was famous for quite some time for shooting so many people all on the same day from a tower in Texas. Where would you put all those brains if you stole them? You couldn’t have anybody visit unless you kept a room locked up good and tight.”
“A brain thief doesn’t have visitors.”
“All of those missing brains used to tell their owners what to do and how to do it. Some of them must have had tumors that weren’t benign like yours.”
The film stops before the operation ends. “I wanted to keep some of it,” he says, and holds the phone out to her. “But they wouldn’t allow that. All I have is this video.”
“Start it again,” she says, refusing the phone.
“Are you sure?”
“I only looked at the tumor the first time. Now I want to concentrate on your brain. I want to see my son.”
Gary Fincke’s The Out-of-Sorts: New and Selected Stories was published by West Virginia University in November. The Darkness Call, a collection of personal essays, has won the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose and will be published by Pleiades Press in early 2018.