Saturday, October 6th, 2007 • 1 Comment on Tensed Up
I’m working on a new project and, for some strange reason, it’s coming out in present tense. This is unusual for me. Past tense is the norm, of course, but there are many authors who successfully use present tense. I’m not sure I’m one of them, or how I feel about the way this is coming out. I can switch between writing first person or third person without any problems, but this present tense thing feels… unfamiliar. Maybe it’s coming out this way because I need a sense of immediacy for this particular story. It wasn’t a conscious choice to use present tense; I just started writing and there it was.
I don’t often post works-in-progress because I’m too self-conscious about my writing and hate to inflict it on anyone else (even by request). This is the sad, beautiful, strange novel idea that kept me awake a few nights ago and I haven’t done much more than jot down a couple of scenes and a few notes. If you’re so inclined to look at a rough sketch, I’d appreciate feedback on whether the present tense works for you.
She thanks her readers.
(P.S. No, it’s not erotica. This is… something different.)
The diagnosis is glioblastoma multiforme. Gretchen asks Doctor Myers to spell it and carefully writes it down in the notebook she carries in her purse, as if knowing how to spell it will make a difference. On paper, the words look like something exotic and special. But glioblastoma multiforme is not a coral reef or an unusual gemstone or a rare fern from the Amazon Rainforest.
It is a brain tumor.
Dr. Myers looks at her over the rim of his glasses that have slipped down his nose. The frames are cheap and the gold-colored coating has started to peel away at the temples, revealing dull gray metal.
“Do you have any questions?” he asks gently.
She cannot think of anything at first. She stares at him, mentally urging him to push his glasses up. He stares back, unblinking. She feels like she is on a game show and the clock is ticking. She must ask the right question or she will lose the game.
She sighs, tries to think of a question that is reasonable, under the circumstances. She wants to ask him why, as a prominent neurosurgeon who probably makes more in a month than she makes in a year, he cannot afford better glasses that will stay on his nose. That is not a reasonable question.
“What is the prognosis?” The words are like cotton balls in her mouth, gagging her. She forces each syllable past tongue, teeth and lips, trying to sound smart and collected.
The glasses slip a little lower to perch precariously at the tip of the doctor’s nose. He doesn’t seem to notice, why does she?
“Grim,” he says.
She knows what that word means; she does not need to write it down. She is filled with questions now. If she doesn’t ask them, they will smother her and she will suffocate beneath their weight.
“What is the survival rate?”
Dr. Myers sighs. He is a good doctor, a kind man who does not like to give bad news. “Three percent. Five percent in some studies.”
Her breath whooshes out of her like someone is sitting on her chest. Three percent. Five percent. The numbers swirl in her brain. She subtracts them from one hundred. Ninety-seven percent. Ninety-five percent. Death is a ninety-five percent likelihood. That was silly, of course. Death is a hundred percent likelihood for everyone; it’s only a matter of when.
“How long?” Her voice is clipped. She has no time now, no time at all to stretch out the questions, to say “please” and “thank you.”
“How long?” she asks again, when he sighs his kindly doctor sigh and shakes his head.
“Maybe six months. Eight would be optimistic.”
Six months. Half a year. It is March. Six months is September. Before Halloween, before Thanksgiving, before Christmas and Hanukkah.
“Mrs. Orrin? I have some literature for you to read,” Dr. Myers says, but she cannot look at him.
She cannot meet the kind doctor’s sympathetic gaze. She looks away to the corner of the office, to the big leather chair that is befitting a neurosurgeon.
Gregory looks up from his Magic Tree House book and smiles a gap-toothed smile at her. His red hair is a tangle of curls that resists every effort to be brushed into neat waves. His blue shirt, his favorite, was neatly tucked in before they left the house, but is hanging out of his tan trousers. He kicks at the overstuffed chair with his sneakers, turning pages with ink-stained fingers. He looks so small in that big chair.
Gretchen smiles back. He is seven years old and it took six years, two miscarriages and three rounds of in vitro fertilization to conceive him. He is her angel most days, her devil on his bad days, and her life. She dreamed of him, of his birth, fifteen years ago and now he is here, real flesh and blood, as if she conjured him from that dream. He is sitting in a doctor’s leather chair eight feet away from her, reading about dragons and castles and looking forward to macaroni and cheese for dinner. He knows he is safe and loved and that is all he has ever known.
“Mrs. Orrin? Would you like to call your husband?”
She cannot look at the doctor. Her mind is empty of questions and holds only the number six.
Six months. Her angel, her devil, her life. Six months.
Gregory will be dead in six months.