Here is the winning story of WD’s 13th Annual Short Short Story Competition: Excavation, by Marie Bacigalupo of New York.
Kathryn is in the shower when she feels it. Lathering up cross-armed, she runs the flat of her soapy hands under her armpits and across her chest. The tips of her fingers sense a difference in the left breast, a dense knot, something other. She steps out of the white-tiled shower, dries off, and dials the clinic:
“Come in tomorrow; we'll do a mammogram,” says the radiologic technician.
The next day Dr. Porcer calls. He says he’s from the clinic and adds, “Come in Monday; we’ll do a biopsy.” On Monday he says, “We'll book the operating room, go in and take a look.”
On Tuesday she’s sitting upright against a pillow in a bed with sidebars, picking at the sheets with one hand, watching the silent rain streaking the murky windows. The other hand holds onto the strings of the green gown covering her breasts. Her head aches as the fecal odor from a teeming wastebasket assails her nostrils. And the knowledge that a death-dealing stranger makes its way among her cells like a scum trailing slug poison her peace.
Nearby, nurses gossip about “the double mastectomy” in the next bed: her seventeen- year-old son died in a motorcycle accident just two weeks before her scheduled operation. Hovering nearby are the woman’s visitors: a middle-aged man with a pencil mustache man winding a strand of hair around his wife’s ear, an elderly woman patting her moaning daughter’s shoulder with a tremulous hand. “Too much, too much,” the patient whispers, her eyes closed.
Kathryn averts her gaze. She cringes at the thought of witnesses around her bed. Her need for privacy brooks no exceptions. She’s told her mother and employer she’s vacationing. She’s said nothing to her ex-husband, who might be inclined to visit. Their lovemaking typically began with a kiss on each nipple. He fell in love with her beauty, he used to say, her lovely
body, her lush curls, her full lips. His vision doesn’t penetrate surface details. She remembers how her husband’s manicured nails, biweekly haircuts and tailored suits consumed the bulk of her librarian’s salary. Unremittingly handsome, perennially jobless, he picked her pocket to finance his delusions of grandeur, yet she could not stop loving him. Nor could she bear his
scrutiny of her transformation, her face a maze of crusted scars made by anxious fingers, her hair a rat’s nest of indifference, her chest a soon-to-be ruin of surgical excavation, her self a lost relic. Without witnesses Kathryn recedes into the cocoon of herself. There she abides, safe, she hopes, from predators.
Six figures in white jackets line up around the foot and along the side of her bed. A silver-haired eminence steps up to the bed and lowers the guard rail. A rusty screech. Kathryn holds her breath.
“I’m Dr. Porcer from Oncology.” He checks the name on the wall above her bed. “We spoke on the phone.” He turns to the business at hand, leans into his eager-eyed acolytes, all but one male, all waiting their turn.
Dr. Porcer begins: “Thirty-four-year-old female presents with a ductal carcinoma in the left breast, invasive, probable lymph node involvement. Looks like a Stage 3. She's scheduled for a mastectomy tomorrow. We’ll excise the breast and biopsy the sentinel nodes to determine the extent of the malignancy. Cosmetic reconstruction can come later if desired.”
In a single practiced motion, the surgeon flicks the strings out of Kathryn’s hand with two index fingers, exposing her breasts to avid eyes. An incisor tears the flesh of her lower lip. She tastes the blood, metallic, bitter, as Porcer palpates her left breast.
“The malignancy presents itself subtly. Hard to detect. Surprisingly, the patient discovered the growth herself. It’s a rough-edged tumor hidden deep in the fatty tissue. See if you can find it.”
The first intern circles the areola with his ring and middle fingers, moving them counter- clockwise, his eyes on the pillow behind her head. Then he moves his fingers forward with increasing pressure, intent on finding the buried cells, pressing the areola till his school ring scrapes her nipple and she winces. No luck.
This one looks about seventeen. Blond crew-cut, cornflower blue eyes, white eyelashes. Clumsy hands. He thrusts his middle finger in the middle of her nipple. An involuntary cry escapes her.
“Lighten the pressure or you’ll depress the growth and miss it.”
Miss doctor-to-be approaches, all business in a tight coif that pulls up her eyebrows.
“Palpate the area under the breast and around the armpit.”
The intern’s brows come together. She listens with her fingers. Two fingers on each of two hands, around the breast once. Eureka! She’s found it! So far, she’s Number One in the competition.
One by one they probe, untrained fingers pressing, prodding, until they find the alien mass or are forced to give way to the next in line. The last one up, a slight Asian man, averts his eyes, an embarrassed smile on his face. His fingers are light and sure. He finds what he’s looking for.
“Okay, that’s it. We have three rooms to go.”
They file away toward the door. The Asian hesitates, turns back, walks up to her bed. Silently, he ties the strings on her green gown, then hurries to catch up to his peers.
The next day they come at dawn, a harried nurse, her white cap askew, ample breasts straining a white blouse, and her muscled male aide in a short-sleeved green tunic. They’re pushing a bare steel gurney, and before Kathryn knows what’s happening, they lift and slide her onto the frigid metal. Kathryn is naked under a white sheet. Her nipples harden and her flesh raises goosebumps. They slip a plastic cap over her head and push her into the corridor past fast- moving medicine carts, badly steered wheelchairs, and unsteady patient pedestrians into an elevator full of strangers who can see her nipples through the sheet.
Dr. Porcer waits in the operating room, his tolerant smile lighting up the lives of his students. She’s being cooked under the blazing heat of the overhead lamp. “How are we feeling?” Porcer asks. She has no idea how he’s feeling, but Kathryn acknowledges the folly of insulting a surgeon about to demolish her torso. She forces herself to raise the corners of her mouth but does not offer a verbal response. “Let’s make sure we get the right breast—ah, that is, heh, heh, the correct one,” he says, and someone crosshatches her left breast with iodine. Then the anesthetist turns over her arm, slips a needle into her vein, and tells her to count to ten. She makes it to six.
Kathryn awakes in miasmic stupor. She tastes bile in her lacerated throat. She’s not sure what she smells—some combination of body waste and gaseous vapor. An acute ache in her left breast evokes a moan before she remembers that she has no left breast and cognitively relocates the pain to her chest, where it peaks in intensity. Her eyes open starkly in panic. Her hands won’t move. They’re tied to the bars of the bed with strips of cloth. She needs to vomit. Just as her gorge rises, a nurse appears. “Hello, Kathryn. You’re in the recovery room. Nauseous?” Kathryn looks down at the vomit on her hospital gown and up at her interrogator. The nurse slides a basin under Kathryn’s chin and watches her retch.
“Good girl,” she says, as she washes Kathryn’s face with a soapy washcloth. “Try not to throw up. It will irritate your throat.”
Kathryn tugs at her bonds.
“The wound is raw. Dr. Porcer’s afraid you’ll be tempted to look and poke. We’ll untie your hands as soon as the doctor says it’s OK.”
Back in her room, Kathryn listens in the dark for the moans of her fellow changeling. Silence. Hands tied and chest bound, Kathryn gestates in her soundless cocoon, awaiting the emergence of a creature that will stumble, off balance, into a strange new world.
The door opens. Backlit by the light of the corridor, Dr. Porcer stands and smiles. “Let’s take a look, shall we?