The evolution of an illness is similar to the evolution a story.

My colds always start with sniffles and a tickle at the back of my throat. Except instead of a tickle it’s more like a yard fowl decided to gently graze for scraps on my soft palate. Naturally I get a sore throat.

The next day I have serious sinus issues. My nose is Niagara Falls – the rushing water and the dam all at once. I take cold medicine, which wins the battle but not the war. My upper respiratory tract infection starts to trickle downstream.

Because I don’t cut my nose off, all that Niagara falls goodness gets washed down into my bronchi and smaller airways. Two days later I’m coughing up a lung – that yellow stuff, so you know it’s infected.

Shortness of breath and chest pain go hand in hand with the hacking, reminding me this isn’t some simple flu and that I probably have a pneumonia (for the umpteenth time). This goes on for a week or so before I try to get help. When I give in to the less-than-kind remarks about my unhealthy appearance (thank you, work colleagues) it’s antibiotics and sick leave that doesn’t involve actually resting.

Despite myself I get better, though it takes the better part of two weeks. My body rediscovers its equilibrium, but the cycle is always poised to start again.

Like my cough started with some virion, stories start with an idea. A suggestion that replicates and multiplies into something significant. That grows from its point of origin towards some inexorable, organic destiny. Stories run their course despite us, whether they are stopped prematurely or reach a natural conclusion. And the writer rests, but the cycle is always ready to start again.

{fiction} The Road Not Taken

“Come on,” he cajoles, “be a mensch.”

I hesitate for a moment. Looking beyond the young man standing in front of me, I spot his friends walking away. Probably still talking about extra-terrestrials and string theory. I wonder, why me.

“Do I know you?” I ask politely, but firmly.

“Nope, I’m just making conversation. Was I creepy?”

“A bit, yeah.” 

I smile. “Sure.”

I follow the three guys, barely out of their teens, back through the campus gates into one of several waiting taxis.

“We’re bored, so we’re just walking around,” he tells me without my asking. “We might end up at this Arab place, learn some Arabian culture.”

“Fascinating,” I reply. I really mean it. 

The taxi makes some twists and turns that are foreign to me, but then everything is foreign to me in this new city that is not the city of my birth but a city that I must reside in and get used to and perhaps one day grow to like. But that day is not today.

I begin to realize several things almost at once.

The streets outside the taxi window are unfamiliar. I do not recall the taxi having a red plate. The driver and the front seat passenger – one of the three young men I have so blithely followed – are having a whispered conversation. I am in the middle in the back, between the young man who told me to be a mensch and the one who mentioned String Theory. The windows are wound up. The radio is not playing. The driver is slowing down, and I do not see an Arabian place in sight. I do not see much of anything because I am being pushed down into the lap of the mensch who holds my wrists with a grip of steel while String Theory hauls my ankles onto the seat so he can control my legs despite my fierce, panicked struggling.

I yank one ankle free to kick him in the face and am rewarded by the mensch pressing his elbow into my throat. String Theory begins to force my thighs apart. My throat burns while my eyes sting with tears. Desperately I wonder, why me.

I am staring at the man who wants me to be a mensch.

“That sounds great,” I hear myself say. “But maybe some other time. I’ve got plans tonight.”

He looks disappointed, but brushes off my rejection with a terse “Whatever.”

We walk away. I am flattered, and strangely relieved.