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 them, 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 she’d 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, Mattie helped Paul out of bed and walked with him outside to the base of the hill. There, they found a flat patch of grass, stretched out a blanket he’d given her for her birthday, 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 meds 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 reactions will tell you if you’re in any real danger. Likewise, Paul assumed that Mattie had a clearer idea of his prognosis than maybe he did.
“I think I’ll walk to the top,” said Paul, pointing to the summit and 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.
“Okay, lets get going,” said Mattie.
“No, no. I want to go alone,” said Paul.
“Honey, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“It’s probably not.”
“So come inside.”
Paul stood up and brushed dirt off his hands and shorts. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
Mattie gripped his hand and scanned his eyes for a moment. “Okay. I’ll head back inside and start dinner. Don’t die, please.” She stood up to her tip-toes and kissed Paul on the cheek before walking back inside.
Paul paced himself as he climbed the hill, whose trail began with soft grass and soon became a gauntlet of rock and sand. The medicine in his bloodstream added fifty pounds to every step, and he lost his balance on two occasions from misplaced steps on shifting rocks.
He considered turning back until he came to a tall tree that he hadn’t noticed before in past 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 strong drugs. Doctor 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 you seem like a nice guy. 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 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 new path. The tree motioned for a high five with its arm-like branch, but Paul had already passed him by 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 pushed forward sluggishly, feeling as though wet concrete was blending into the gaps between his toes. He once again considered turning back, but knew that behind him was a foul-smelling bed where he’d been rotting for four days in sick warmth, surrounded by glasses of half-drunk water and cough drop wrappers. So he continued on.
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, yes?”
Paul made a concentrated effort to not stare at the man’s legs, and thought nothing of his ability to balance so easily 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 pass on 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 flaked 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 forward 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 showed a warm smile. Flight attendants.
“Go ahead. Or you could just turn back. Not everyone has the stomach to reach into the box.”
Paul gulped. He wondered if whatever was in that box was worse than returning to his soggy sick bed, then reached inside.
He expected his fingers to hit the bottom of the box, which should’ve only been as deep as a hand length, but he found himself reaching deeper, deeper into it. He pushed his full arm into the box and waved 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.
A strong hand grabbed 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 cried. The old man stood firm, smile and gaze unbroken, holding tightly to the box and its hinged cover.
Paul felt his arm hinge backwards like a wind-up pitch and strained and twisted the rest of his body to prevent his shoulder from snapping in two.
“It’s going to break my arm! Help me!” Paul panicked. His shoulder tightened and burned, and when the pain became unbearable, Paul felt the back of his palm press against a solid, flat surface. 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 shoulder.
“What the hell was that?” Paul asked the old man, who still had not moved or stopped smiling through Paul squirming. The answer came from inside the box.
“I win!” said Herbert, his voice sounding distant, deep within the box.
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 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, the recent surge of adrenaline drained 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. His energy wained and he regretted his decision to come to the top of the hill, but his sense of empowerment had returned. 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 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 realized it had grown twice its size 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 with the pain. 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, jerk?” he 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 really are a baby. Those antibiotics in your system are 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.”
“I’m not getting back in bed! I can’t take anymore of that smell and all the aches and pains. And those boring books!”
“Well, die then.”
“Wait. Am I going to die?”
“No. It’s a joke, Paul. Can’t a swollen lymph node make jokes?”
“You messin with me?”
“Yes. But I suppose your death would certainly make things much easier, wouldn’t it?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“People who are dead don’t have to worry so much about dying.”
Paul felt something form in his throat, a new lump. “I guess. I guess I’m just not ready to go.”
“Nobody ever is, Paul.”
The last of Paul’s energy left him. He coughed and rolled onto his hands and knees, vomiting onto the rocks and sand. A familiar voice came 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 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.”