I am sitting in social studies class a month or two into seventh grade. Suddenly, I cannot see Mrs. Johnson’s face. It is like someone has pressed a thumb over my vision and smudged the center of it. A smudged thumbprint where her face should be.
I try to keep taking notes. I am a dutiful student. If I keep quiet and am a good girl, it will go away. I will be able to see again.
But I can’t see my notes, either. The smudged thumbprint of nothingness stares back at me from my notebook paper. Then, it starts to grow. Like someone is blowing up a balloon. Not a thumb now. A fist.
That’s when I start to panic. My chest tightens. I’m going to puke. I look back up at Mrs. Johnson, and now it isn’t just her face that is gone. Her shoulders, too. Her torso.
At the edges of my vision, a black fog rolls in. And between the black fog and the smudge, it is only a matter of time before I will be unable to see anything at all.
Three summers earlier, I was out on the front stoop talking with my grandfather while he watered his red geraniums. Suddenly, half his face went slack, and he clutched his arm. Then, he crumpled to the lawn like a sack of potatoes. It was a stroke.
What if I’m having a stroke?
I raise my hand. She calls on me. For the first time at school this year, I speak.
“I’m feeling sick. May I go to the nurse’s office?”
“You do look pale.” I feel her looking at me. “Yes, please. Please go.”
I stand uncertainly.
“Do you need help getting there?” I hear her ask.
I think I tell her no. There is a strange buzz in my brain, underneath the panic. I feel sick on the breezeway and find the handrail and cling to it. Only a thin line encircling my vision shows me where the grass is and where the concrete. I slowly, weakly make my way to the other side of the school, mostly from memory, guided by the handrail. I think I am going to vomit.
The smudge begins to shift. Now it sparkles. It becomes iridescent. Iridescent triangles shimmer and slide around like a kaleidoscope. As soon as I try to focus on one part of the pattern, it shifts. I still cannot look at anything directly.
By the time I reach the nurse’s office, it is difficult to speak. She lies me down on the vinyl upholstered bed, which is cold. I feel tremendously cold. She gives me a blanket of something thin and scratchy. The shimmering rectangles are fading, but now that I can see the nurse’s office, the fluorescent lights hurt. She shuts them off for me.
I can barely move. I look down at my hand, and it is not mine. Nothing about my body is mine. The fingers. The hand. The arm. I don’t recognize any of it. I had not realized that I still saw my body as mine. I cannot move my mouth. Even breathing seems difficult.
This time, I really am dying. And I do not care. I do not care one bit. My head is splitting open like someone took a hatchet to it, and I am so weak that even breathing seems like too much work. I am dying, and I am thankful for it. Yes, please, I think before I fall asleep.
* * *
When I wake up, the light is still off. The administrative building is quiet. I sit up. I guess I am still alive. Again. I look down at my hands, and this time they are mine. I know them.
I see if I can stand. I can. I wander out into the main office. It is dark. I look at the clock. It is past 3:15. The school is closed. I have been forgotten.
I try the main doors. They are locked. Mercifully, I hear a woman’s voice behind me. It is Mrs. Cinkovich. I try to explain, and she looks aghast. She drives me home.
The house is empty. I am still pale, my body gelatinous. I feel transparent and brittle as a glass bell, vibrating with life. I lie down on the couch and gaze up at the cedars through the back door.
All my life, I have felt so selfish for being alive. One of my earliest memories: My mother leans over me. Do you know what your name means? It means The Dark One. Because you brought darkness into our lives.
Year after year, I have sat at the dinner table, scooping up forkfuls of mashed potatoes or cutting up a slice of ham and thinking I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve this sacrifice. The pig, these potatoes. Someone else could be eating this food. Someone who deserves it.
I would sometimes ball up my hands into fists and hit myself until I bruised. Until it stung. Just being here, you’re so selfish. You’re better off dead. Everyone would be better off if you were dead.
This time, in the silence of my parents’ living room, I don’t think that at all. I look up at the cedar, its needles so vibrantly green that they glow. So beautiful that it hurts.
It is miraculous to be alive.
For the first time, emptied of terror, I want to live. I want to be selfish. I am hungry for it.
A few months later, I am diagnosed with migraines.