It was Friday evening, half an hour before the light struck, and she was attempting to open a package with a carving knife. The package was from her ex-husband, who had covered it in a thick layer of transparent tape, the kind fretted with hundreds of white threads, the latest step in his long campaign of bringing needless difficulty to her life. She was sawing along the lid when she came to a particularly stubborn cross-piece of tape and turned the box toward herself to improve her grip. Her hand slipped, and just that quickly the knife severed the tip of her thumb. The hospital was not busy, and when she walked in carrying a balled-up mass of wet paper towels, her blood wicking through the pink flowers, the clerk at the reception desk admitted her right away. The doctor who came to examine her said, "Let's take a look at what we've got here," then gingerly, with his narrow fingers, unwound the paper from around her thumb. "Okay, this is totally doable. I don't mind telling you you had me worried with all that blood of yours, but this doesn't look so bad. A few stitches, and we should have you fixed right up." She had not quite broken through the nail, though, and when he rotated her hand to take a closer look, a quarter-inch of her thumb came tilting away like the hinged cap of a lighter. The doctor gave an appreciative whistle, then took the pieces of her thumb and coupled them back together. She watched, horrified, as he fastened them in place with a white tag of surgical tape. "Miss? Miss?" The room had begun to flutter. He took her face in his hands. "What's your name? Can you tell me your name, Miss? I'm Dr. Alstadt. Can you tell me your name?" His hands were warm and soft, like the hands of a fourteen-year-old boy deciding whether or not to kiss her, something she remembered feeling once, a long time ago, and she gave him her name, which was Carol Ann, Carol Ann Page. "Okay, Carol Ann, what we're going to do is bring in the replantation team. They see this kind of thing all the time, so I don't want you to worry. You hang in there, all right? Is there anyone we can call for you?"
"A husband? A parent?"
"No. Not in town."
"All right then. It shouldn't be longer than a few minutes. In the meantime, I'm going to give you something to ease the pain," but instead he jotted a few sentences onto a clipboard and left the room. She lay back and closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, the doctor had been replaced by a nurse in dark green scrubs, who said, "You must be the thumb," wiped the crook of her elbow with a cloth that smelled like chlorine bleach, and gave her a shot. The shot didn't extinguish the pain so much as disguise it, make it beautiful, ease it, she supposed, just as the doctor had said it would. The nurse hurried out, and Carol Ann was alone again. A moment later, when she saw the light shining out of her incision, she thought she was hallucinating. It was steady and uniform, a silvery-white disk that showed even through her thumbnail, as bright and finely edged as the light in a Hopper painting. Through the haze of drugs, it seemed to her that the light was not falling over her wound or even infusing it from the inside but radiating through it from another world. She thought that she could live there and be happy.
After the surgery, when she woke, her hand was encased in an odd little glove that immobilized her thumb but left her fingers free to open and close. Her neck was stiff, and her lips were dry, and in her mouth she detected the iron-and-butter taste of blood. At first she thought she was making a sort of mental clerical error, mistaking the aftereffects of thumb surgery for the aftereffects of dental surgery, but when she swept her tongue over her teeth, she brushed up against a pad of cotton batting. She pushed it out onto her palm. A pale glow flickered from somewhere and then went out. She remembered her dream of light and consolation, the sensation of peace and abundance that had come over her, and a voice saying, "This is really freaking me out. Isn't this freaking anyone else out?" and a second voice saying, "We have a job to do, Clayton. Nothing here changes that fact," and then the feeling of escape as she stared into the operating lamp and sleep pulled her under. She was thirsty now, but when she to tried to sit up in bed, a boy in mocha-colored scrubs appeared by her side and said, "Whoa, there. You're still zonked out from the operation. What do you need? Let me get it for you." She asked for something to drink, and he took a bottle of Evian from the tray beside her bed, twisted the cap off, and brought it to her lips, his hand performing a slow genuflection in the air as he tipped the water out. She drained nearly the whole bottle without once pausing for breath. When she was finished, he nodded, a short upward snap of the chin, impressed. "Is there anything else I can help you with? The doctor should be in to check on you soon."
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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