"My mouth. I cut my thumb - just my thumb - but when I woke up, I found all this... stuff in my mouth." She was still holding the square of spit-soaked gauze she had discovered. When she opened her fingers to show it to him, he made a nest of his two good hands beneath her broken one so that she could dump it out. An image of her father came suddenly to mind: the sun was bright and the sky was clear and he was kneeling beside a stream in a state park, making a nest of his own good hands to give her a sip of water, and she paused and frowned, staring into the tiny pool he had created, transfixed by the way the light sent gray blooms of shadows gusting over his palms, and when she pointed it out to him, he laughed and called her his little Impressionist.
The orderly had taken her chart from the foot of the bed. "Says here you bit down on your cheek during the operation. Normally that doesn't happen. Just sometimes if there's an anesthesia problem you might wake up for a second and feel a little pain, and you'll have what they call a bite response. A B.R. - that's what this stands for."
"Are you cold? I can turn the heat up if you want."
"No. I'm fine."
"Okey." That was how he pronounced it. "I'll be back in to check on you in a little while."
She had spoken to him for only a few minutes, and she felt so weak, and he was no one who loved her, and when she propped herself up on her elbows to watch him go, her head swam with a thousand colors. She spent a while studying her room: the television pinned by a metal arm to the ceiling, the window looking out on a stand of pine trees, the empty bed, with its sheets in a dead calm. In the hallway, a man walked by wheeling an IV tower with a sack of clear fluid on one of its hooks, his stomach glimmering through his hospital gown. Then a woman stumbled past carrying a flashlight in her left hand. By the time Carol Ann thought to wonder why she was pointing her light down a corridor that was already so clearly illuminated, the woman had slipped out of view. Her arms were trembling from supporting herself, so she lay back down again. The bed's side rails rattled as the mattress took her weight. The pillow rose up around her ears like bread. More and more she had the feeling that she was missing something.
It must have been another hour before the doctor who had first inspected her thumb, Dr. All-That-Blood-of-Yours, Dr. Alstadt, arrived and pulled a stool up to her bed. He sat down and asked her how she was feeling, then leaned in with his stethoscope. He was so close that her gaze was drawn to the smooth spot on his neck, a shape like Kentucky just above his Adam's apple, where the stubble had failed to grow. He smelled like mouthwash, and he used her whole name when he spoke to her. "Well then, Carol Ann Page, let's take a look at that hand of yours, shall we?" He undid the Velcro on her glove so that the material fell away like the peel of a banana, then unwrapped the bandage from around her thumb. Later she would find herself unable to remember which she noticed first: the quarter-inch of her nail that was missing, a straight line exposing the featureless topside of her thumb, or the way the light she thought she had hallucinated was still leaking out from around the wound.
"Your color is good," Dr. Alstadt said. "Can you go like this for me?"
She flexed her thumb in imitation of his. A thrill of pain passed through her hand, and the light sharpened, flaring through the black x's of her stitching.
"Range of motion good, too. It looks like we got to you before any major tissue damage set in. Let me wrap you back up, and you can get a little shut-eye."
"Doctor, wait. What's happening to me? Don't you see this?"
He didn't need to ask, See what? She noted it right away.
"I forget you've been sleeping all this time. Well, I don't know much more than you do, I'm afraid. It started at eight-seventeen last night. That's locally speaking, but this isn't exactly local news. In fact, I bet if we... here." He picked up the remote control and turned on the television. An episode of an old courtroom sitcom filled the screen, the one with the lecherous prosecutor and the hulking bailiff, but when he changed the station, Carol Ann saw footage of what looked like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Silver sparks appeared to swirl through the bodies of the traders like the static on a broken television. The doctor changed the station again, and she saw a child soldier with his arm in a sling and his shoulder ablaze with light. Then the president of the United States stepping into a helicopter, raising a hand glowing with arthritis at its joints. Then a pair of boxers opening up radiant cuts on each other's faces. The images came one after another, so quickly that she barely had time to identify them. A woman in a blue burka, long pencils of light shining through the net of her veil. A team of cyclists with their knees and feet drawing iridescent circles in the air. A girl with a luminous scrape on her arm, her face caught in an expression of inquisitive fear. When the news anchor addressed the camera, saying how from all around the world today we are receiving continuing reports of this strange occurrence: light, pouring from the injuries of the sick and the wounded, Carol Ann noticed his eyes narrowing and saw something like the flat pulse of heat lightning flashing from his temples. A phenomenon so new and unforeseen - the anchor winced almost imperceptibly as his forehead grew momentarily brighter - that scientists have not yet devised a name for it.
Excerpted from The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier. Copyright © 2011 by Kevin Brockmeier. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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