I went to grade school with Marlie O’Hagan, the world’s first recipient of a double-organ transplant. I despised her. As a toddler, she’d suffered three heart attacks, and lived only because a surgeon had figured out how to cut the heart and liver from a dead child and sew them inside her.
Marlie was a miracle of modern medicine, Mother said. Marlie was always in the newspaper, and Mother liked to show me the pictures and read the stories aloud. In my nightmares, before I even met her, Marlie sat before a roaring fire, eating pale flesh from a plate. I tried to scurry away but only scurried in place. Marlie peeled my skin back with her fingers and licked my blood gently.
On the first day of kindergarten, a reporter crouched on the blacktop, holding a microphone to Marlie’s mouth. Mother and I joined a wide half circle of spectators who applauded every time Marlie spoke. She was smaller than I expected, her wispy hair a brighter orange. Built like a teddy bear, with a puffy round face and protruding tummy to match. Beneath her eyes, wormy yellow scars marked the places where cholesterol once bulged through her skin. Soft fur covered her face and arms and glittered gold in the light of morning.
Fur! I pawed frantically at Mother’s purse. “Why—” I gasped. Why, why, why. Mother swatted my shoulder and hissed, “Be quiet! Be nice!”
Marlie tilted her head in my direction and smiled crookedly, sleepily, as if she’d just been roused from the grave. I spewed a rainbow of cereal across the parking lot, and the reporter glanced at me and laughed.
• • •
I, too, was a miracle. Because of modern medicine, Mother didn’t need a man to have a family. Alone, her body had created life, pulsing legs and kicking heart, hands to grasp and mouth to eat. In my earliest years she held me while the days closed over our little house. She touched me toe by toe. She smiled to make me smile.
Mother held me in the living room with the long-cold fireplace. Mother held me in her bedroom, where shoe boxes hid treasures: my footprints and a lock of my hair, dried flowers, notes too faded to read. Endless clippings from the newspaper. Mother held me in the doorway that opened to our untended garden. Crickets trilled, and ferns curled along the fence, in the shade of a neighbor’s maple tree. A cluster of purple coneflowers persisted, year after year.
• • •
Marlie gave off a stale, sweet smell that overpowered the crayons and glue and snot in our kindergarten classroom. Her voice was raspy like my chain-smoking uncle’s. She was dumb, couldn’t learn her letters, and was constantly falling asleep. Yet the teacher fussed over her, and she always got to take our classroom hamster home on weekends.
In my dreams, she ate him.
Our classmates liked her well enough. The ones who took gymnastics lessons made a big production out of treating her like any other girl. Fat kids and nose-pickers loved to pet her arms and ask her to lift her shirt and show her surgical scars. I was disgusted by this, and fascinated. I hated and feared Marlie, but in my own way I was as obsessed as Mother. I wanted to forget the scars, and I wanted to touch the scars. I wanted to peel their edges loose with my fingernails.
I made no friends at school, and I was neither praised nor punished. I sang at moderate volume and colored acceptable hand puppets. I ran wild on the playground. A flip over the monkey bars, a dash across the balance beam, a twirl in the middle of the wood chips. Never more than a few seconds in one place, lest anyone try to play with me, never an instant of stillness, lest I draw the attention of playground monitors. The teacher told Mother I was doing fine, just fine, no problems, fine, and Mother said, “What is that supposed to mean? Does she even know who you are?”
She didn’t, and I successfully avoided everyone until Halloween, when Mother sent me to school with twenty pieces of off-brand chocolate taped to greeting cards. We drew ghosts and headstones on paper bags, then raced around the classroom screaming, “Trick or treat!” in each other’s faces and spilling fruit punch all over ourselves. We might as well have been a swarm of flies, for all anyone noticed anyone else, but I was careful even so. When Marlie was by the cubbies, I veered to the door. When Marlie fed candy corn to the hamster, I crawled under a table. I moved in constant opposition to her, even at the cost of the good candy that the gymnasts had brought. But I made the fatal error of sitting at the table to rest from my efforts. A green-mittened hand landed on my shoulder. A sick chill shot to the base of my stomach.
“I like your costume,” Marlie said.
I was a doctor. I wore a stethoscope and a lab coat that hung to my ankles. A stupid costume, Mother’s idea, and of course, of course she’d put me in it knowing it would attract Marlie. I wanted to scream, but tears clogged my throat. Helplessly, I turned.
Marlie was a perfect frog. Green footie pajamas trapped and strengthened her sweet smell until it was almost sour. A pink fabric tongue with a plastic fly glued to it hung by a safety pin from her collar. The hood, plush, with round eyes on top, was store-bought, and her mom had even painted her face green. The makeup had flaked away from her scars and formed clumps in her fur. It was gross but effective, and for an instant, impossibly, I was happy. We were small and weedy together, at the edge of a pond in summer.
“You even sound like a frog,” I whispered.
Marlie smiled in that way she had, her mouth simply a hole that fell open, the corners of her eyes flickering as if she didn’t actually know whether or not she was happy. She drew a high, hesitant breath. “It’s because of my medicine,” she said.
“Okay,” I choked, and the closing bell released me.
• • •
Reporters and photographers came often to our school, and it pissed Mother off royally that I was never in pictures with Marlie, never one of Marlie’s little friends who said, “She’s really just like any other girl,” and got their names printed in the paper. All through the dark winter, she’d charge into my bedroom with the latest story in hand, wanting to know why I didn’t tug the reporter’s sleeve and make a comment. “Don’t you play with Marlie?” Mother would ask. “Isn’t Marlie your friend?” No, no, no, I’d answer, and she’d pull me out of bed and make me practice tugging her sleeve.
After our garden melted into a spring swamp, Mother grew tired of fighting me and decided it was the reporters’ fault. Why didn’t they give everyone an equal chance? What, exactly, did they find wrong with Mother’s daughter?
- · ·
In first grade, we were visited by a big-bottomed lady reporter from Philadelphia. Sitting in one of our chairs in the back of the classroom, she looked like she was hovering in air. She caught me staring, pursed her lips, and winked, as if to remind me of all the things she knew and I didn’t.
During the midmorning milk break, she sang “Baby Beluga” with us and swayed side to side. Marlie, seated beside her, sometimes didn’t sway fast enough and got brushed in the head by the reporter’s drifting boob. A grown lady acting like a child, a big person pretending to be small. A dead girl living. A dead girl singing. In moments like these, the whole world tilted sideways.
• • •
In third grade, just after Thanksgiving, Marlie was on the cover of People magazine. Reporters had followed her for a week and taken glossy pictures of Marlie eating a plate of Lit’l Smokies, Marlie playing four square at recess, Marlie at her desk with her chin in her hand. “Look!” Mother cried, as she paced the living room and I ate SpaghettiOs in front of the TV. “Look, it’s you!” She thrust the magazine between me and my bowl. Our classroom filled half a page, and I remembered the day. Way back when I could still walk to school without a jacket, when sunlight washed seedlings in the classroom window sills. Marlie, in the foreground of the picture, selected a book from the Accelerated Reader shelf. Three gymnasts crowded together on a beanbag chair. A boy, grinning like an idiot, leaned sideways in his desk to get in range of the camera. Just beyond him, off in a corner, I peered into my desk. The afternoon before, I’d been detained after school and made to take everything out, scrub away pencil shavings, dried glue, and bits of my fingernails, and put my school supplies back in neatly. On that morning, the blue notebook I’d placed on top was a jewel in the sun. It filled my vision, stilled my heart. By Thanksgiving it was once again buried in the unholy mess of my desk. Mother showed me the picture, and I felt a pang of longing, but I said, “Yeah, so?” and slipped the tip of my tongue through an O.
Mother followed me around the house, reading the story. Marlie worked with a tutor every day after school. Marlie liked to play catch with her dad and help her mom in the kitchen. When Marlie grew up, she wanted to write a book called In the Darkness. It would be about the things she thought of while lying awake at night, and about all the pets she’d had.
“Isn’t that the sweetest thing?” Mother gasped.
Then Mother had an idea. “I’m a mom too,” she declared. “There’s no reason I can’t call another mom and set up a sleepover.”
I cried, I pleaded, but two nights later Marlie showed up at our house with her pajamas in a pillowcase. We ate pea soup and watched The Facts of Life. Marlie sang the theme song, and her rasping voice loosened my teeth from their sockets. I pressed my hands to my ears, squeezed my eyes shut, and begged, “Shut up! Will you please shut up!”
When I opened my eyes, Marlie was fiddling with a bit of loose carpet and staring mildly at the TV. “How come you never talk?” she said. “We can talk about school if you want.”
Mother brought pillows and blankets into the living room. “This will be fun! When I was a little girl, I loved camping out in the living room.”
Fun was not really the reason; the reason was that my bedroom, intended as a storage closet, was big enough for a twin bed and a bureau but little else. Still, I accepted Mother’s living room camp-out plan, and pretended it was fun, because as soon as Mother went to her room I would make a break for mine. I would close the door, hide deep under the covers, and forget that Marlie O’Hagan was in my house.
Mother spread a quilt across the carpet. She propped two pillows against the hearth and patted them vigorously. “There! Perfect! A nice little bed. You girls get tucked in, and I’ll read you a story.”
I snorted as she left the room. When did Mother ever read anything but the paper? Was she going to read Marlie a story about herself?
Mother returned with a large green volume, Elves, Fairies, and Other Little People, a book I’d often admired at the mall. It contained lush drawings of fauns hiding among riverbank rushes, a list of worldwide elf sightings, and details of leprechaun behavior. It had no stories, and Mother would have known that if she’d bothered to open it before buying it. Oh Mother, Mother, Mother, with her thinning hair and hollow eyes. She thought she knew me because she’d made me. She thought she was sophisticated because she owned a little house. She thought we were special because a miracle girl lived in our town.
Marlie slipped politely beneath the covers. I sat on the hearth. Mother laughed. “What are you doing? Get in bed.”
“I want to sit here.”
“What are you talking about? It’s cold and hard there! Get in your nice warm bed with your friend.”
Marlie lay patiently on her back, furry arms resting above the blankets. I shook my head, and Mother tugged me away from the hearth. “No!” I screamed. I kicked and struggled, tangling the blankets. Mother, stronger than she looked, pushed my shoulders and got me down on one knee. I dropped low, rolled free, and ran for the bathroom. Mother caught me by the ankle, and I fell headlong into the hallway. I curled into a tight ball, but Mother pursued her advantage and pried me open. She pinned my shoulders to the floor and clamped my hips between her knees. She blocked out the ceiling light, and into her darkness I shrieked, “I don’t want to feel the fur!”
Mother gave a single sharp gasp. She leaned closer, closer, until her narrow nose and disbelieving mouth hovered inches from mine. Her breath smelled empty as snow. “That’s mean! That’s shallow! That girl has already suffered so much.”
Mother would have talked on if I’d let her, stacked argument on top of argument until I could no longer see. I gritted my teeth and cried, “She’s a monster! I hate her!” with such force that Mother tilted back, loosening her legs just enough for me to crawl free. I scrambled to the bathroom.
“Fine!” Mother screamed. “Nice girls get to listen to bedtime stories! Mean girls don’t.”
Icy air leaked around the edges of the bathroom window. Pipes in the walls thudded. I wrapped myself in towels, swallowed hard, and imagined myself down into my neck. Down once more to a warmer, darker place, where pulses were thick as summer air in our garden, on days when neighbors spread mulch.
Marlie tapped the bathroom door, and without thinking I tumbled back into the light and let her in. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she said.
Towel around my shoulders, I sat on the edge of the tub while she washed her hands. She stood on her toes to reach the sink. At the back of the bathroom closet was a stepping stool I’d used in years past. I thought about the stool and about the years: the sink filled with hot water on the shortest days of December, my hands submerged; my breath fogging the mirror as I worked a loose tooth.
Droplets clung to Marlie’s fur and shimmered under the vanity’s bare bulb. “You have hair too,” she said. “Are you a monster?” She left the water running while she pumped soap. A single, dainty drop, and, oh, Mother would have loved that! She was always insisting one pump was plenty and telling me I needed to stop filling my whole palm, unless I had my own personal soap money. Lately, she was trying to convince me to at least cut the amount by half, a compromise I was considering.
Marlie scrubbed and rinsed. “My cyclosporine makes my hair grow like this. I have to take it to protect my organs. If I didn’t I would die. So I have more hair than you. So what. I don’t care what you think.” She closed the tap and dropped back down to her heels. “I hate you too,” she said.
• • •
A week later, during library time, I requested a book about cyclosporine. “Is that a person?” the librarian asked. “It’s for organs,” I said, and she gave me a heavy book with illustrations of a liver in cross section, a fetus in utero, and capillaries magnified ten thousand times. On the due date, I hid the book under my mattress and claimed it was lost. Mother paid the replacement cost and grounded me until New Year’s.
The joke was on her, because I had no friends and nowhere to go, nowhere I wanted to be except my closet room. Wedged between bed and bureau, I studied the book in lamplight, lost all sense of place and time in the two-page spread of the liver. Veins appeared as holes pocking a landscape of tightly packed pink cells. Funny words twisted around my tongue. Canaliculi. Fenestration. Little red cells darted now here, now there. Great hills called lobules rose into a dusty sky.
All of this inside me! I winced in disbelief, laughed in disgust. For days, I thought of nothing but the glomerulus, a squirming ball of capillaries inside my kidney. At school, Marlie yelled at me to go away, and gymnasts called me a creep, but I lived among the parts and pieces of the body.
One of my favorite pictures, the skin at six hundred times’ magnification, inspired me to experiment in the bathroom with Mother’s leg-shaving razor. I shaved off thin white ghosts of my fingerprints and squeezed out perfect red beads. I learned to control the flow with tourniquets fashioned from hair ties. I leaned close, I squinted. I never gave up hope of seeing the platelets and the fibrin net.
I loved the progress of scabs. I scraped them with scissors as they changed from red to purple to yellow. I saved the bits in sandwich bags or sprinkled them over snow.
• • •
In the spring of fifth grade, Marlie’s surgeon, her miracle worker, came to Career Day. Streets and buildings in Pittsburgh already bore his name, and reporters from all over the state joined the fifth- and sixth-grade classes in the gym. We sat on the floor, reporters and teachers lined the walls, and Dr. Marrona’s stool was on a riser set up under the basketball hoop. Marlie sat there with him and held Muffin, a fourteen-year-old pug who had survived his double-organ transplant three years before Marlie got hers.
Dr. Marrona was the tallest man I’d ever seen and the first man I ever loved. He wore striped linen slacks that made him look a little like the sous chef who’d spoken to us earlier, and a lot like a pirate. He sat as if he’d fallen onto the stool from a height, legs angled out, back hinged forward, shoulders hunched. He spoke in a low rumble and didn’t seem to realize he was talking to children. Our teacher asked, “Did you know when you met Marlie that she was the one? Could you tell she had the spirit to make it through?”
“No,” he said. “It took us thirty years to figure out organ rejection, and a lot of people died along the way. A lot of dogs too. There was nothing wrong with their spirit.”
Cameras flashed. Muffin shivered in Marlie’s lap. A sixth-grade teacher launched into a rambling question that had something to do with the body as a house: “The way I like to think of it is, the blood vessels are hallways, and organs are bedrooms.”
I rolled my eyes up. Sometimes the sixth-grade boys’ basketball team threw balls so hard and high that they looped over the blades of the ceiling fans. I loved that.
“If you look at pictures of the lining of the intestines,” the sixth-grade teacher said, “it even looks like carpeting.”
A lonely smile broke slowly across Dr. Marrona’s face. “My first-year anatomy and physiology professor used to say metaphors would screw you over, every time.” He lifted a stack of index cards in the teachers’ direction. “Did you want me to talk about being a surgeon?” He tapped the index cards on his knee. “Training will take you at least ten years. It took me fourteen.”
Other speakers that day had been for everyone else: the long-haul trucker who owned shot glasses from each of the lower forty-eight states; the sous chef who made us all sing about sauces; the radio DJ who once interviewed Cyndi Lauper.
Dr. Marrona was for me. He hunched further into himself and seemed to be in private conversation with his index cards as he said, “I knew guys who were incredible memorizers. Blew me out of the water in those early A and P classes. But all that really matters is the first time you operate on a live animal. Some guys hit the floor as soon as blood touched their gloves.”
I would not hit the floor. I would journey through veins, navigate thick warrens of lesser vessels, brave rivers of bile until lobules rose before me. Dr. Marrona would teach me to cut out, sew in, make the monsters, perform the miracles.
He lowered the index cards to his thigh. “I’ll say this about being a surgeon. People really will love you. More than they should.” He turned to Marlie. “Marlie’s donor—I certainly didn’t do anything for that little girl. But every year on her birthday I get a card from her mother.”
Marlie shook her head frantically. She said, “But you did!” and up there on the riser she was a tiny, distant flash of light. Dr. Marrona gave her the microphone, and she gripped it with both hands. “You did do something!” she cried. “I have her memories now. I remember somebody else’s house and somebody else’s parents. I remember the car seat and the white sky and the tires whispering across ice.”
The gym was startled into silence, and for that I loved Marlie. Teachers stood with jaws unhinged. Cameras hung stupidly around photographers’ necks. Laughter rolled up from my stomach and was just about to exit my mouth when the gym dissolved into chaos. Kids talked at once, reporters screamed questions, and photographers tried to get one last shot as Dr. Marrona, Marlie, and Muffin exited through a side door.
I ducked out the back, catching up to them in the hall. Tiny Marlie, giant Dr. Marrona, Muffin in harness behind them, jolting a bit with every step as if the floor were electrified.
I followed them outside, slipping through the heavy metal door just before it closed. Marlie carried Muffin down the concrete steps to the parking lot and set him near a grassy crack in the blacktop. Muffin was too frail to hold himself up while arching his back to do his business. Dr. Marrona leaned down, down, down and helped him by holding the harness. Marlie said, “Good boy, Muffin. Good boy.”
I waited at the top of the steps, but they didn’t see me. Marlie looked right through me and made me wonder for an instant if I were dreaming, or dead. Dr. Marrona drew a bag from the pocket of his striped pants. I walked down one step, down three. “Hi,” I said. Louder: “Hi.”
He returned to his full height, and his shadow fell over me. “Hello,” he said.
“I want to be a surgeon! I can operate. I won’t hit the floor.” I held out my hands, the crisscrossing, oozing, scarring proof of my efforts. He took them in one of his, cupping them like baby birds.
“You did this to yourself?” he asked, and my heart beat until there was no room for breath. I nodded. “You like doing it? Is it fun for you?”
“Yes,” I whispered. Fun, sure. Fun was one word. Fun was one piece of those hours in the bathroom, when I planned my cuts and tried to control my blood and skin.
“I don’t like it,” Dr. Marrona said. “It scares the hell out of me. If you think it’s fun then I wouldn’t want you operating on me, or on anybody I care about.”
Marlie tugged his sleeve, and he scooped her up in his arms. Washed in sun and sky and birdsong, she cuddled into his shoulder. He kissed her furry forehead and rested his nose in her orange hair.
“She can’t be a surgeon,” Marlie told him. “She’s too mean.”
• • •
Career Day went on. I breathed. I clapped politely. I walked home. I digested the noodles Mother set in front of me. I dreamed of light, stupid things that left me hollow all through the next day.
On the weekend, I hid beneath my blanket and cried. I didn’t cry over Dr. Marrona’s words to me, which shimmered in a corner of my mind, too bright to look at. Marlie’s comment I dealt with easily enough: I stoked my hate and burned her opinion to dust. I cried because fourteen years was longer than I’d been alive. If I started my training immediately (and I wouldn’t start immediately, because Dr. Marrona did not want me), I would still be twenty-five before I became a surgeon. Impossibly old. Surely I didn’t need fourteen years, or even ten. I already knew the difference between veins and arteries. I could spell hepatocyte and label every organ of the abdomen.
The door of our house swung open, swung closed, and Mother went out into the melting snow to do the things she did. Talk to the men smoking cigarettes outside the grocery store, buy the newspaper and the SpaghettiOs. I retrieved a paring knife from the kitchen. In the bathroom, I sat on the edge of the tub and imagined Marlie’s scars onto my belly. Hip to hip, tracing the curve between ribs and stomach.
I was smart and I was steady, but the skin was thick. It resisted, and it hurt. I stabbed, without success. I wanted to open the right side, where my liver was, but it was easier to reach across my body and work from the left. I drew blood, at last, through persistence rather than force. I scraped and scraped with the knife’s tip until red dots appeared, and then I had holes to widen.
I made a good, deep cut, and blood surged down onto my underpants. I should have been somewhere in range of my left kidney, and when I saw no sign of it I felt the first rush of fear. Outside, gray clouds moved between sun and window. The blood that gloved my hands turned from bright red to purple. I pressed. I dug. I expected the blood to stop and give me a clearer space to work. I expected the dizziness to stop; I knew a person didn’t die when the belly was opened, because Marlie’s had been and she was still alive—but it seemed I was dying. I would never be able to explain to Mother that it was an accident.
Tears coursed down my face. They flowed without sobs, without help from me. When Mother came home she must have sensed it all through smell or instinct. She dropped her grocery bags in the doorway, ran down the hall, and, screaming, threw open the door.
• • •
That night, a dumpy man repaired my cut with twenty-three stitches. I hadn’t even breached the deep layers of the skin, let alone the fat and fascia and peritoneum. Still, my attempt at self-surgery was enough to earn me a case report in a regional medical journal.
I spent ten days in a horrible place, where white-faced children screamed in the night and walked around with no laces in their shoes. In a room with creaking armchairs and flaccid teddy bears, Mother visited me. She always cried, but I didn’t know if she was crying for me or for Marlie, whose new heart had stopped suddenly, late at night, one week after Career Day.
By the time I came home Mother herself had become a ghost. I’d leave for school in the morning while she was still in bed, and I’d come home to find her sitting on the floor, smoking and watching TV. For weeks, layers of grease formed on the kitchen counters, even though we never ate anything but cereal and the noodles I learned to boil. Some nights, after wiping the underside of the toilet seat or tugging a clot of hair from the tub drain, I went to bed tight with frustration because no notice, no praise ever came. But Mother, quiet and useless, frightened me, and I hid from her in the dust I brushed off the television and the school clothes I folded each evening.
On the last day of fifth grade, my heart rose as I turned up our sun-soaked street and saw that Mother had taken out the trash. But inside the can were shoe boxes full of Marlie’s newspaper clippings.
I saved them all, kept them under my bed, and in the night Marlie rose from their depths. She sat naked on my bed, her golden fur growing until her scars were covered, growing and flowing to fill the room. Marlie opened her rib cage, removing organs one by one and lining them up on the bureau like precious toys.
I vacuumed our house. Once a month, I changed our sheets. When winter came again, I shoveled snow. I did the best I could, and I was nice. No one could ever accuse me otherwise.
Carrie Grinstead lives in Los Angeles with her partner, Daniel, and Pickle, their rat terrier. Her stories are forthcoming in Reservoir and in The Masters Review Volume VII.
Art credit: Aleksandr Kichigin / Alamy Stock Photo