One Hundred Days
Words By Emily Martin, Art By Helen "Henna" Faunway
For months my brother complained that his body ached all over. We thought it was from lack of sleep because he liked to stay up late, watching television until his eyelids couldn’t hold themselves open any longer. But then one morning he woke to find several freckle-sized holes in his chest. They didn’t bleed, but he would later describe the pain as searing, as if the holes were being burned into his flesh with invisible matches.
When I got to the hospital that morning, a doctor was already examining my brother. My parents sat in chairs pulled close, their hands folded in their laps. This was the first time I’d seen them in a room together since they’d gotten divorced.
The doctors and nurses had wide eyes and cheerful smiles that took up most of their faces. Their oversized canines and incisors—bright white and shining with saliva—made them seem hungry for us. They told us there was nothing my brother could have done to prevent it, but I felt like they were letting him off the hook too easily. Surely there had to be consequences for having lived so dangerously.
When we were kids, it seemed as though my brother always needed stitches. He would chase me around the house with his eyes closed, pretending to be a zombie, running into walls. One time he ran into a wall so hard that he split his forehead open and fell backward. I screamed for Mom when I saw the white of his skull peeking at me through flaps of loose skin.
I could see the small scar, a horizontal indent where his skin was tightly folded, on the right side of his forehead as he sat up in his hospital bed to greet me. The rest of his face was so adult now. He had messy facial hair and frown lines, but that crease in his forehead held on from childhood.
That night, I stayed with my brother at the hospital. Mom and Dad were uneasy about leaving, but ultimately exhaustion and phone calls from their new spouses won out. With our parents and the doctors gone, we both felt calm—almost normal.
I said, “A skeleton walks into a bar and says, ‘Give me a beer and a mop.’”
My brother knew my jokes already, but he still laughed like it was the first time he’d heard it. I laughed too, but shakily, and then fell silent for a while. Eventually I asked him, “Aren’t you afraid?”
“I’m just relieved, you know, to know it wasn’t all in my head.” I could hear an ease in his voice that I hadn’t heard since the pain started, half a year earlier.
The small wounds had spread since his arrival at the hospital. The holes scattered and expanded so slowly that we didn’t notice them until they were bigger. They had been so small at first. Who knows—perhaps they had been there all along. Perhaps they were just widening. There was so little that anyone knew. The doctors hid their confusion with lists of tests. They’d already scheduled him for x-rays, blood and urine samples, physical exams, and questionnaires the following day—we were both tired just thinking about it.
When exhaustion overcame my worry, I slept in the chair next to my brother’s bed, waking up every time he stirred. Somehow I still managed to dream. I dreamt that his skin began to grow back over the wounds like webs. The new skin made my brother powerful, like a superhero. But not Spiderman—that name was already taken. Skin Graft Man, maybe?
When we were children, I told my brother that there was a portal to another dimension in my closet and all we had to do to get there was dig. Later that day, our parents were horrified to find a small hole where my brother had managed to knock through the wall, trying to find that magic place I’d promised. I pretended to have no idea why he’d done it.
In my dream, my brother’s new skin cells gave him the power to punch holes in walls that led to those other dimensions, new places for him to discover and explore, to stumble into other kinds of adventures—dangers more thrilling than running into walls.
I woke up from the dream around five in the morning. The room was dimly lit from the red glow of the machines connected to my brother’s body. The holes were the size of marbles now.
I don’t know what possessed me to touch them. They were the right size for my fingertips, like matching puzzle pieces.
My brother awoke to find me sliding my fingers into the grooves of his right arm. He started and tried to pull away, but the skin from my fingertips had fused to his body, closing the gaps in his arms.
It didn’t hurt, but I cried all the same—fearing the consequences of what I’d just done.
“I wish you had more fingers,” he said. “I feel so much better.”
I was relieved—however irrationally—that there seemed to be something I could do to help.
Our parents returned that morning and found us that way, my skin acting as a bandage for his skin. Dad brought us breakfast, but my hands were otherwise engaged, so my parents had to feed me ripped-up bites of bagel.
When the doctors came in, they asked me what would happen if I tried to let go.
I felt choked just thinking about it and shook my head vehemently. “I’m scared to find out,” I told them. “Please don’t make me.”
But doctors don’t listen to people. They ripped my hands away, and both my brother and I winced like mirror images of each other.
My hands felt full and heavy. My bones ached. My brother screamed as the wounds tore open.
The doctors made marks on their notepads and exchanged looks.
“What does it mean?” My mother asked them.
The head doctor stepped forward to address my family. He pushed his eyeglasses up his nose until they knocked against his bushy black eyebrows. “I’m afraid that your daughter will need to return her fingers to the fissures.”
I held onto him again, and the wounds slowly began to heal. I was afraid that if I didn’t remain in the hospital, positioned fingertip-to-torso, the holes might take over his entire body. He’d become one giant empty space. So I stayed.
My brother and I were anxious and angry, but to keep from feeling these things we played board games, my brother moving the pieces for both of us. We watched pirated camera versions of movies—the ones we couldn’t go see in theaters—on my brother’s laptop. You’d think something like this would bring us closer together, but you quickly run out of things to say to a person when you’re sharing the same skin. I too began to feel tired all the time.
We stayed that way—attached to one another—for one hundred days while doctors and scientists from around the world came to test the properties of the wounds and to analyze what gave my fingertips the power to heal. One doctor even asked us if we were sure we weren’t actually the same person. I didn’t know how to answer that or if it was a real question.
On the one-hundredth day, the doctors ran out of tests and my brother and I were pale, tired, and fragile from months of remaining at rest indoors. After leaning forward to reach the holes for so long, my back had become permanently curved. It appeared my brother had forgotten how to use his legs. But he was alive.
The doctors said they could no longer keep us in the hospital. They said they were sorry, but they all looked more tired than remorseful. It was easy for them to let go of something they never came close to understanding. Soon they would forget about us. In a week, I would call the hospital to ask if I had left a sweater behind, and the nurses wouldn’t be able to recall that we’d been there at all.
We would have to leave the hospital, but neither of us could begin to fathom how to live in the world attached to one another like this. I wanted to go back to school, I wanted to get a normal job, I wanted someone to hold me and love me one day. Just me. By myself. I know my brother wanted those things for himself too.
After a while of sitting in silence, my brother sighed heavily. “You can let go of me now.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but the words wouldn’t come. I remembered the pain I felt the last time I’d pulled away from him, and I remembered the way he cried out. There was power in holding him this way. I was in control. I was the one who could make it all stop. He needed me. But I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be whole without holding on, and I couldn’t remember what it felt like not to worry. I was so tired of worrying.
My fingers tensed underneath his skin. I realized I’d forgotten what it felt like to have fingertips. But the more I concentrated, the more I could feel the edges of myself, how my fingers curved inward like hooks. My brother and I locked eyes. For a moment, I thought I could hear him talking in my head, but maybe what I heard were my own thoughts, waking up inside of me again. I’d forgotten what that felt like too.
And so I let go.