Teresa Pham-Carsillo is a Vietnamese American writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. After graduating with a BA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis, she became an ... [+]

Image of BART Lines - 2022
Image of Short Fiction
A single cell refuses to die.

Inside the man's right lung, the cell mutates, proliferates, bent on its single-minded directive to reproduce. It takes a long time for cells to amass and clump together into a tumor. It takes even longer for one tumor to cleave into two, for his eight-minute mile on the treadmill to become nine, then ten, leading to late night WebMD searches for exercise-induced asthma.

The treadmill spins on.

The man—who bears the hunched shoulders of two decades spent in an office, his long-haired, dreamy poet of a younger self long ago left on Berkeley's campus—is moving, growing, aging all the time, even when he drums his fingertips against the steering wheel, thirteen miles away from his office, a gridlocked metal box on wheels on 880 northbound.

He types endlessly: emails, contracts, spreadsheets, but never a poem. Not anymore. On his lunch break, he walks the city streets, past people disappearing down escalators leading to a subterranean network of tunnels and trains. He makes his way toward Jack London Square, toward the water, towards the scent of brine and the sound of querulous gulls.

In the middle of the night, when the man should be sleeping next to his wife, he turns over and faces the window. The curtains are not fully drawn, allowing a feeble yellow triangle of light to invade the room. He falls back asleep and wakes to cabinets slamming, whining arguments, his wife's cell phone going off in another room. His chest feels tight, but he dismisses it as a lingering side effect of a dream he can no longer recall in detail, only that he was in motion throughout.

If pressed, he will admit to not dwelling much on his own mortality. Of course, there is sometimes the fleeting intrusive thought. When he is behind the wheel, for example, and another car changes lanes too quickly. He can see it then: 3,000 pounds of metal and glass careening towards him, sharp edges ready to puncture into a thousand soft, vital places . . .

There is a version of the future where the man spends years in and out of hospitals and doctor's offices, growing to hate the low Muzak that plays on loop in waiting rooms. Where his daughter and son sit at his bedside, graduating from coloring to chapter books to games on their phones. Where he can hear his wife weeping in the bathroom late at night when she thinks he is asleep.

There is another happier future, where the malignancy inside the man disappears without him ever knowing about it. In this version, he discards his laptop bag at the door after work and helps the children with their math homework before setting the table for dinner. He and his wife share an illicit cigarette in the backyard late at night, his hand mindlessly brushing over her knee and bare calf. The man looks up at the endless black of the night sky, then back to the house, where the glow of his daughter's unicorn-shaped night emanates from behind pink curtains. The night is repeated a thousand times over, until the children graduate from high school and move out, until the backyard playhouse has been disassembled and sold on Facebook Marketplace, and the stars are no longer visible, drowned out by the artificial light of new housing developments and office buildings.

And there is yet another version of the future—perhaps the happiest of all—where a meteor strikes the planet in the middle of a hot summer night. The man and his wife are asleep with the windows open to let in any stray breeze. The children have crawled into their bed at some point, sweaty limbs tangled in the sheets, exhausted from a hike through the redwoods where their tiny healthy lungs breathed in clean forest air. Even in sleep, the man can feel their presence, can smell the lingering milk scent of their scalps.

In the minutes before the world ends, the man has no existential concerns. He is not worried about who he is or where he is headed. He is one with the multiplying cells inside his body, mindless and tranquil. As he sleeps, several of the cells break away from the others and travel to the slick rubbery surface of a nearby lymph node. There will not be enough time to spread to the far-flung reaches of the man's body, but the cells cannot know that.

The man sleeps. The cells replicate. The meteor enters the atmosphere, heating to over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit in its rapid descent.

If the cancerous cells inside the man's body possessed self-awareness, if they understood the brevity of their existence, how would they react? Surely, they would gaze upon the gently pulsing arterial rivers and the intricate lacework of a bronchial tree, and in that flashpoint moment, the truth would vibrate through every part of their being: it's beautiful here.


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