Paul’s descent into madness began the day he discovered a lump on the side of his neck. He assumed the worst, and thought back to sixth grade, when his teacher told the class about the time her husband found a strange lump on his scalp. Six months later, she told the class, he was dead. So, Paul resigned himself to a similar fate, dying at the young age of thirty-two.
At his wife Mattie’s insistence, he made a trip to the emergency room, where doctors poked and studied the formation on his neck. “Is it painful?” the doctor asked. Paul shook his head and provided a detailed explanation of the lump’s history. After a short time in the emergency room, Paul was diagnosed with a non-fatal case of strep throat and given a prescription for powerful drugs whose names he couldn’t quite pronounce.
“But remember,” the doctor told him before he left, “stick with bed rest for the next two weeks and avoid strenuous activity or the use of heavy machinery.” As the doctored listed a long string of potential side effects, Paul’s mind drifted elsewhere. He was happy to be alive, but secretly wondered if the doctor made a terrible mistake in his diagnosis.
It was four days into his bed rest that Paul felt he could take no more of lying in bed, sore from inaction, reading books his wife recommended to him — all of which he didn’t like very much — and wishing he’d moved the TV into the bedroom two weeks ago like his wife had asked. He needed some air, he decided.
Near Paul and Mattie’s house, there was a hill whose summit overlooked their small town. “Can we take a short walk up the hill?” asked Paul. Never one for rule following herself, she helped Paul out of bed and walked with him outside to the base of the hill. There, they found a flat patch of grass, laid out a purple and black serape blanket, and sat together. Paul took deep gulps of air, as if he’d been submerged in water for four days. Mattie pulled up blades of grass and tied them in tiny knots, a skill that Paul watched with fascination; he knew his fingers were too bloated and bubbled from his medication to handle such a delicate craft.
“I just want to feel better,” Paul said.
“Oh, don’t be a baby,” said Mattie playfully. “You heard the doctor. Give it a few more days of medicine and rest and you’ll be back to normal.”
Paul smiled. He thought of the advice he’d heard about flight attendants: if you’re scared of flying — which Paul very much was — keep an eye on the flight attendants throughout the flight. Their reaction will tell you if you’re in any real danger. Likewise, Paul assumed that Mattie had a clearer idea of his prognosis as an outside observer than maybe he did.
“I think I’d like to walk up to the top,” said Paul, wanting desperately to find his strength again. He ignored the chronic sensation of his head floating away like a balloon and secretly wondered if he’d taken too much medication.
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“No, I think I’ll be okay.”
“All right. I’ll head back inside and start dinner. Don’t be gone too long.” Mattie kissed Paul’s forehead, stood up, and walked back towards the house.
Paul paced himself as he climbed the hill, which started with grass and soon became a trail of sand and rock. He realized that the medicine in his system added fifty pounds to every step, and he almost lost his balance on two occasions from misplaced steps and shifting rocks. He considered turning back until he came to a tall tree that he hadn’t noticed before in previous hikes. It wasn’t like other trees: it had an uncanny facial structure formed into the bark at Paul’s eye-level and a branch in the shape of a muscular human arm.
The tree said to Paul, “Care to arm wrestle?”
Paul thought nothing of the talking tree, because trees are known to talk to those on the verge of insanity, and those on the verge of insanity are known to think nothing of insane things.
“Sorry, pal,” said Paul. “I’m on some pretty strong drugs. Doc said I can’t be doing anything too strenuous.”
“Suit yourself, buddy,” said the tree. “Where ya headed?”
“To the top.” Paul pointed to the trail ahead.
“Well, I don’t often tell people this, but there’s a shortcut to the top if you head that way.” The tree pointed his branch towards a new path, hidden behind a collection of bushes Paul had seen many times before, but never wondered what could be on the other side. “It should get you up to the top in no time. Fifteen minutes maybe.”
Paul had walked this trail dozens of times, and estimated another hour until he reached the top if he continued along the usual path. But he knew that he shouldn’t be out too long, so he accepted the talking tree’s advice.
“Thanks, pal.” Paul walked towards the newly-discovered path. The tree motioned for a high five with its arm-like branch, but Paul had already passed by him and missed the moment. The tree’s milky white bark turned a soft pink of embarrassment.
Stepping beyond the bushes that blocked the new path, Paul made his way forward sluggishly, feeling as though wet concrete was blending into the spaces between his toes. He once again considered turning back, but he knew that behind him was a foul-smelling bed where he’d been rotting slowly for four days in sick warmth, surrounded by glasses of half-drunk water and cough drop wrappers. Just a bit further, he thought.
After a short walk, Paul came upon an elderly gentleman with wooden poles for legs. Above those legs, the man stood proudly with a white beard and a brown golfer’s cap. “You there!” said the old man to Paul. “A fine evening, don’t you think?”
Paul made a concentrated effort to not stare at the man’s legs, and thought nothing of his ability to balance so seamlessly on them. “Yeah, it’s great up here. Who are you?”
“Aye, I’m the trail guardian. And who is this that walks my hidden trail this evening?”
“Ah, Paul. Herbert told me to keep an eye out for you.”
“The arm wrestler.”
“So, Paul, you’re very close to the summit of this ancient hill. I couldn’t imagine you’d come all this way and not want to reach the top. Am I right, my friend?”
“Right. How much further?”
“Not too far, Paul. But because I’m the trail guardian, there’s something I must ask of you before I allow you to ascend to the top of the hill.” From behind his back, the old man produced a small wooden box. It looked as if it had at one time been painted green on all sides, which had begun to flake over many years of being hidden behind the old man’s back. The man rested the box in one hand and with the other, he lifted the lid, which creaked slowly on its hinge. Paul stepped closer to and gazed into the box. He saw only darkness inside.
“Reach inside,” whispered the old man.
“What’s in there?” asked Paul, shivering. He looked back up at the old man, who gave him a warm and inviting smile. Flight attendants.
“Go ahead. Or you could just turn back. Not everyone has the stomach to reach into this box.”
Paul gulped. He wondered if whatever was in that box was worse than returning to his soggy sick bed. He decided that this trip to the top would do him some good, so he reached his hand inside.
He first expected to hit the wooden bottom of the box, which should’ve only been as deep as a hand length, but he found himself reaching deeper, deeper into the void. Then he inserted his full arm into the box and found himself able to wave it to and fro inside. A bottomless box? said a little voice in Paul’s head. He looked back up at the man, puzzled. The old man only smiled a toothy grin and nodded, go on.
Paul reached out his hand for something, anything to grip onto inside the box, but there was nothing. So, he opened his palm, and waited. After a moment, a strong hand gripped Paul’s. As he tried to pull his arm back out of the box, the grip grew tighter, holding Paul in place. “Help, I’m—something’s got me!” Paul yelped. The old man stood firm, smile unbroken, holding tightly to the box and its hinged cover.
Paul felt his arm begin to hinge backwards, an unnatural motion that led him to reposition himself to prevent his shoulder from snapping in two. He strained and twisted against the force of the strong grip inside the box.
“It’s going to break my arm! Help me!” Paul began to panic. He felt his shoulder tighten and burn, and when the pain started to grow unbearable, Paul felt the back of his palm being pressed against a solid, flat surface. Suddenly, the hand inside the box released Paul’s hand, freeing him. He jerked his arm out of the darkness and rubbed the painful knot in his bicep.
“What on earth was that?” Paul asked the old man, who had still not moved or stopped smiling through Paul squirming. The answer came from deep within the box.
“I win!” said Herbert from the void, as if calling from a distance.
With Paul’s arm freed, the old man snapped the box closed. “No one’s ever beaten old Herbert at arm wrestling,” he said, shaking his head. “You look a bit sickly, so I didn’t expect much from you, lad. But to pass my test, you didn’t have to win. You only needed to play.”
Paul blushed, happy to have completed the test despite his terror. The old man slipped the box back behind his back, and an empty hand re-emerged. He stepped to the side of the dirt trail and waved his hand down the path, urging Paul onward. “Happy trails, my friend. Pass on now to the summit.”
Paul continued on, smiling bashfully and rubbing his shoulder, ironing out the ache.
As he walked, he felt the recent surge of adrenaline begin to drain from the soles of his feet, leaving him violently weak. He stumbled over the stair step arrangement of rocks that led to the summit, nearly losing his balance once again. Don’t give up just yet, he thought.
When he reached the top, Paul took a deep breath and scanned the surrounding landscape. He could feel his energy waning, and regretted his decision to come to the top of the hill, but felt a sense of empowerment returning to him. He looked near the head of the trail and spotted a rock where he could sit and catch his breath. No strenuous activity, he recalled.
As he sat down, he realized that he hadn’t thought much of the lump since beginning his walk, and he felt proud of himself. He reached up to feel it, and suddenly realized it had grown considerably since his visit to the emergency room. It now had features — new contours and bumps on its surface. Then he felt a bite on his finger as he rubbed the lump. A small bubble of blood appeared on his finger. And with that, the leaking kettle in Paul’s mind finally tipped, spilling boiling absurdity deep into the cracks of his brain.
“Why did you bite me?” he angrily said to the lump.
“Because I don’t like you,” said the lump in a small, bitter voice. It sounded like it was coming from Paul’s own mouth. “You’re making everything worse. I showed up to help you.”
“That’s not true. You’re trying to kill me.”
“I’m not trying to kill you, Paul. Your wife’s right, you know. You really are a baby. Those antibiotics in your system are working on making you better. But you’re not helping right now with your big-boy hike up the hill. You need to get back to bed.”
“Am I going to die?”
“No, but that would certainly make things much easier, wouldn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Dead people don’t have to worry about dying.”
Paul felt something form in his throat, a new lump. “I guess I’m just not ready to go.”
“Nobody ever is, Paul.”
Paul sensed the last of his energy begin to leave him. He coughed and rolled onto his hands and knees, producing a splash of vomit onto the rocks and sand. He then heard a familiar voice coming up from the trail below.
“Paul! Honey, are you okay?” asked Mattie, as she ran up the hill. “I shouldn’t have let you come all the way up here!”
Paul noted his wife’s worried look as she approached and he wiped the spit and vomit from his chin. His arm still ached as he reached up and felt the lump on his neck again. It hadn’t changed in size, but the little mouth had shut up tightly and the blood on his finger had become a dry red dot. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m feeling much better now.”