Scuffed brown shoes, slither-slap, slither-slap on the worn but clean linoleum floor as I wait anxiously for the nurse Dr. Brown said would be arriving shortly. I have what they called a “gown” on top but this is nothing Cinderella would even have worn to clean out Lucifer’s litter box. Blue paper, white ties. Which are tied. I start swinging my ponytails back and forth across my shoulders, enjoying the swish-swosh in time with the slither-slap still sounding from the floor. Woah the room is spinning. Stop that. My formerly musical shoes now press down firmly with tension and I grip the vinyl trim of the examining table. The movement of the world stops but the dark spots in front of my eyes don’t. Neither does the dizziness – for turning my head a few times? And okay there it was, the first foggy pain unfolding like a delicate flower behind my left eye. Should have known. I close my eyes against the fluorescent lights and the door opens.
“HELLO!” Sings a very loud accented voice. She wheels a big machine behind her and seems super friendly, but all I can do is wince in response. “Oh, you’re the my grain girl huh?” She says, a little softer. She clicks her tongue in apparent sympathy as she dims one set of lights (“Thank you,” I whisper) and busies herself unwinding the many loops, cords, and round things from this – contraption. My grain girl? Where had I heard that before? I close my eyes and remember a whispered conversation, perhaps a bit too loud in worry as my little brother bounced around the room with a Bugs Bunny pencil clenched in one fist and one of my good markers in the other, bap-tapping drum beats on every solid surface. “Tumor…” I remember hearing in anxious grown-up tones that day when Josh’s noise suddenly ceased. Concerned glances, hands over mouths. “Even if it is just my grains both our fathers” [Bap-tap-tappity-tap]. Both our fathers WHAT? One was dead, one was, well, reserved and a little odd.
Distracted, I marvel about the worlds one mind can contain. Memories, like the one I was just reliving, and also books. Reading is my favorite thing, especially Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. When I am truly absorbed in one, it’s like a different world is created in my mind. Well, first in the author’s mind, then in mine. I want to do that, be a writer and create entire worlds. That would be a unique kind of power, kind of like magic… I snap back to attention and eye the white adhesive disks nervously. “Samantha, this won’t hurt a bit.” She smiles and I relax.
“My name is Cathy and this is an EEG machine,” she explains. “I’m – just – going to attach – these, ” she breathes as she sticks the white suction cup looking things to my scalp,”to different areas of your head. Wow, your hair is really thick! These wires record your brain waves. Ready?”
“Uummm…” Cathy presses a button and the machine starts with a loud clank and whirr and okay, she was right, it doesn’t hurt. Lots of green pens trace different wavy lines across the unspooling paper next to me. I can’t stop staring. Those lines hold the answer to my super bad headaches, pain so awful that I sometimes throw up. Mama usually gives me that strong fruity cough syrup and it kind of seems to help, or at least let me sleep. It could be a — tumor? That was the scary word I had overheard them saying. I think it means death.
When the test is over Cathy cheerfully rips the gel covered sensors off my scalp, neck, and forehead. “Yea-ap, this is the worst part!” She exclaims as I shudder, and I finally realize she doesn’t have so much an accent as she has a huge pink wad of gum in her mouth. I suddenly want some. My mouth waters. “Here ya go!” Cathy says, tossing me not a piece of Bubblicious, but my equally pink polo-style shirt with the little green turtle sewn on it. When Cathy has trundled away with her machine I yank off the hospital thing and hurriedly pull my real shirt over my ponytails. Mirror. Weary-looking. Oh well. And I step out into the hallway, toward my anxious parents and the rest of my life.
The next day, the phone rings. It is still New House to me, Mama always covered with flecks of paint or smelling of whatever stuff she puts on the wood to make it shine. It’s a house close to other houses, in a new town. A school with a playground across the alley in back. Children on bikes. I’d met some of them. I jump as the phone jangles again and Mama glances up, wiping at her forehead with the back of her hand. “Honey get that would you please?”
I do, speaking the polite words I’d been taught. A nervous man-voice. “Hello – uh – yes hello dear. May I speak to one of your parents?” Mama has gone to wash up I guess and she hurriedly takes the receiver as I hold it out to her. She shakes her pretty head and dust makes a cloud around her. “Hello?” She says in her telephone voice. She listens and all is still, the very room, even the ticking antique clock seems to stop. I back away. “Yes of course.” She says stiffly. “Three o’clock is fine.” She hangs up in a daze and I back further and further away until I’m at the stairs. “Jeffrey!!” She calls out in a strangled voice which Dad is sure to not hear since he and Josh are out in the yard. I turn and bolt up the stairs to my room and shut the door firmly. I turn to face the zoo of stuffed animals on seemingly every surface. “It’s my head,” I tell them knowingly. Their eyes glitter in sympathy.
We had begun to know the neighbors. The house to the left of ours, if you stand in front, belongs to The Smiths, and Charlene Smith runs a little daycare there. It’s summer, and there are more than a few ragtag children playing in the yard almost every day. Across the street, the Thompsons, a nice young couple, both of whom have long curly hair, always have a baby wrapped to one of them in some kind of tie-dyed cloth thing. The Smiths’ house, or yard actually, is where Josh and I will be hanging out for an hour or so while my parents go to the doctor’s office for an important meeting. Outside, clothes changed, my father’s slightly bristly jaw seems clenched and mama’s eyes are steely, but glistening. Josh attempts over and over to stand on his head while Steve, Charlene’s toddler, giggles. I suck the end of my braid knowing that what I will learn upon their return will be it, for me. “It won’t take long,” my mother says, again in the strangled voice. “Be good children and listen to Charlene.”
“Oh don’tchoo worry none about these kids they’ll be doin’ just fine!” Charlene drawls as her bright orange hair falls over her pockmarked face. I glance up in time to see Dad say to Mom quietly “Then again, maybe don’t listen to her…” Mom rolls her eyes and almost smiles and I turn as they get in their tiny Datsun station wagon, poking Josh in the stomach so he giggles and falls.
I am sitting in the grass, pondering the start of 3rd grade at a new school when the Datsun roars loudly back up the driveway and into the little garage. They’d been gone about an hour I guess. The little piles of grass I’d been making were bigger than I’d realized. One pile: tumor. One pile: my grains. A door slams and unbelievably I hear the amplified ringing sound of Mom’s laughter. “…serious to discuss,” she trills in a funny voice.
“I told you not to worry so much,” My dad is amused and calm. I spread the Tumor pile out, blending it in with the rest of the grass. People don’t laugh at tumors. But what are my grains? I don’t like the sound of that either.
“Everythin’ all right thin?” called Charlene out her back door, Josh escaping through the lumpy inverted V of her legs.
“Yes!” my mother’s voice is calm and polite. “Thanks ever so much for keeping an eye, let’s go inside children!” I stand up and Josh seems to almost roll from one yard to the other.
“T’weren’t nothin’,” Charlene says as her squeaky screen door slams behind her. My mom laughs again, quietly, as we follow her around to the side door, no new deck and back door yet for the Robbins Family. We sit at the dining room table. Josh picks his nose, Dad peers out the window at The Smiths’ house, ever curious.
“What does MR. SMITH do, do you suppose? Josh stop that,” and swats Josh’s hand away just as quickly as Mama produces a Kleenex and sits down with a sigh, something rattly in her other hand catching my attention.
“Samantha, sweetheart, that test-”
“EEG” I said quietly.
“Yes, you’re right, sweetie, it measured your brain waves. Dr. Brown called us in today for a meeting, all serious, so we-” my dad smiles ruefully and puts his hand on her arm and my mom stops. She sets the bottle in front of me. SAMANTHA JANE ROBBINS it says. FIORINAL. It says. TAKE ONE AT ONSET OF “Congratulations” Mama said. “You don’t have a brain tumor, but you do have all the indications of My Grain Headache.” I look puzzled at my dad, the answerer of unanswered questions.
“Those headaches you’ve been getting, that make you throw up sometimes? They’re called my grains, M-I-G-R-A-I-N-E,” he explains. Ah, so nothing to do with food type grains, I had been picturing wheat and rice. “They run in families, and your mom and I both get them, but my dad and your mom’s dad got ’em the worst.” He glances back at Mama who is heading toward the kitchen, Josh seemingly trying to yank down her denim skirt on the way. “We were really scared Samantha, the way that doctor called us in for this serious discussion. Turns out you’re fine, but….” he thoughtfully turns the pill bottle around in his hands. “What you’ve got are migraines. A certain kind of bad headache. That’s all.”
I take the bottle from him. Listen for the first time to the distinct hollow rattle capsules make against rounded, capped plastic. TAKE ONE AT ONSET OF HEADACHE. “Isn’t your daddy dead?” I ask. There’s a Grandpa, but I know he’s not Daddy’s father.
Dad sighs. “Yes.” He answers, sadness briefly touching his green eyes. “But migraines didn’t kill him.” He takes the bottle from my hands with its satisfying percussive, mysterious shake; magic beans which just might remove the pain that rips through my skull and all every which way, pain which certainly seemed to me it could kill someone. Bottle in hand, he heads upstairs.