Call It What You Will

Donald Ryan's story, "Call It What You Will," was selected a runner-up in the fall 2018 Set Stories Free Contest, a creative project funded by the Knight Foundation and co-hosted by Short Edition and the Public Library Association.

Image of Set Stories Free - 2018

The doctors, explaining the consent form, referred to him as an allergen. That's the only reason he could figure they prescribed Claritin. Well, technically they didn't prescribe Claritin, being over the counter and all. They simply recommended, "take the allergy medicine two days prior to the shots. People say it helps with the pain, yet we can't tell you why." What they did prescribe was Percocet.

How bad is this going to hurt?

Otherwise, yeah, he understood to the best of his knowledge what had been explained, that since he didn't have sickle cell anemia, whatever that was, he wouldn't have to worry about his spleen, whatever that does, exploding. He was consenting to risks that would be minimal. Other than the pain. Being hit by a freight train, their favorite metaphor for what to expect, somehow derailed by Claritin. He wrote his name on the highlighted yellow X: Armstrong Cliffards.

His father chose his name after the author of his favorite book growing up. "It was either that or Mafata" — his father's running joke. Armstrong laughed this off by not having read the book. Now, that wasn't to say he'd never heard the story. His father read bits and pieces to him at bedtime, which he found engrossing enough to put him to sleep. But honestly, all he could recall today was a storm, a shark, and some courage. Call it what you will.

He passed the papers to his mother for her approval. And voilà, with the prick of a pen, he was officially a bone marrow donor. Painless so far.

The hospital was an hour twenty ride south from their exact replica of all suburban sprawls. His mother, who avoided interstates like she avoided spiders, said it was worth the drive, that "the hospital's one of the best cancer institutes in the country, if not the world." He never asked why then was this pushing year four. With her hands at ten and two, she looked more nervous than when he was taking his learner's test a few months back. So he said he'd drive, said he "needed the practice," and "it'd be a crude joke if anything happened now that I'm a donor." She said, "One day but not today," and "don't test God's humor."

"Look at that," his mother said, tilting with her head, eyes on the road, hands on the wheel.

A grasshopper, one unlike he'd ever seen, bigger, (meaner,) greener, was gripped to the side view mirror for dear life, wings pulling from its body from the 70-mph force, like windsurfing in a hurricane.

"Do we stop?"

"Not here. The next exit."

He figured there was some significance within the grand scheme, that feeling people get when they see a rarity for the first time. Like how Noah probably felt when first seeing the rainbow or when Ned watched Peter Parker shut the door from the ceiling, that sort of thing. But not for him. For his mom. She'd been the one storming headfirst into the gale, however fast that was, since day one of his younger brother's diagnosis. Myeloma. A rarity in the land of cancers, attacking his plasma. His the most rare, being so young. Lucky him. But she'd been taking every blow in stride, braced in a way only a mother could be, never letting go, even on the interstate, no matter the distance, when there was nothing to hang on to.

"It's all we can do," she concluded.


Armstrong knelt in the flowerbed, dug his fingers into the dirt, and pulled. It was his mother who had the green thumb, tending her beds and gardens like they were some deep rooted, blossoming, metaphorical extension of herself on this earth. It wasn't a hobby for her. Hobbies implied clubs. This was passion. Though supposedly, this wasn't always the case. For the first eight years of their marriage she couldn't keep the flowers his father brought her alive for more than a few days. "Four days, tops, then the last petal would fall from the rose and the curse would continue." But Armstrong didn't remember those days of dead flowers. What he knew was that she dug deep into some persistence, through rain and shine, embedded, nurturing life from the ground up. "Lord knows, if I can grow two boys I can grow some flowers." And Lord knows she did. There was still the lineage of roses, now a swollen bush sharp as ever, from that eighth-year anniversary. "That's when I knew, even after all those years, she still loved me or she really loved those roses" — his father's running joke.

But like everything else, the past few years had taken a toll on the gardens. Weeds, some waist high on Armstrong, spread like they owned the place. His father had thrown himself into work, because distraction, because expenses, and his mother had thrown herself into everything else. This was the new normal.

Armstrong would start his shots in two days, so before the freight train arrived at the station, he decided to take care of what he could. Carey, whom his mother named after her favorite actor — "If it's good enough for Archibald Leech, it's good enough for my baby boy" — was already in the hospital, where he'd be for the next month. Where he went in to get his port, where they burrowed the tube along his shoulder, up his neck, down into his heart.

So in the garden, Armstrong wouldn't wear gloves, even though his mother's gloves fit him, well, like a glove. He needed to feel the dirt under his nails, feel the shock of thorns, feel the roots rip away. "If you don't pull at the root, you didn't pull anything."

"And which are the weeds?"

"A weed is whatever you don't want growing in your garden."

So he dug and pulled at anything and everything that didn't feel right. Because how else do you know what to... He looked down to see a pin prick of blood bloom on his dirt stained finger. Dig deeper. Feel it.

There was a one in four chance of being a match. And even at that, he was Carey's best chance. Lucky him. And from the initial test to the evaluations to the x-ray to the physical, their second favorite phrase after freight train was "What you're doing is so brave."

"Strong's in the name" — the deadpan joke of the day.

But brave? It was a week of shots. A week of needles. A week of pain. Five hours extraction, unable to bend his arms. And then back to the new normal. He wasn't the one tied up in a hospital room. Chemo. Injections. Chemo. Nausea. Chemo. Withering away like a cursed flower for days on end. Nor was he the one there by Carey's side every moment of every hour of every one of those days, honestly lying, "It will be okay, don't be sorry, baby, you've done nothing wrong, my love, stay strong for mommy," when mommy's last petal was barely hanging on.

He pulled at a plant, stubby and tough, loosening his skin to a blister with every tug not giving way. But he wasn't giving way either. He reached for the tiny shovel, whatever it was called, to stab and force his demand on what he deemed wrong, so wrong, in his mother's garden. And like a whisper in the wind, before gripping the wooden handle, he saw the spider. He knew less about spiders than he did about what he was doing there in the dirt, but he knew enough to be wary of the brown ones. And this one blended into the wood. Lucky him.

He wouldn't call what he did next bravery. More testing God's humor. A running joke chasing after a punch line. Because there was no way now, now that he was a match, now that his shots were in the fridge, now that Carey had a tube to his heart, now that his mother hadn't slept in days to comfort what cannot be comforted, now that his father's work schedule hid his despair, his father who'd now come home late and tell him "the garden looks great, you'll make your mother's day," now that there was a glimmer of hope a week away, that God would let this spider bite him, so he picked it up, let it crawl along his palm, and placed it out of harm's way. So, no, Lord knows, don't call it courage. One day but not today.

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