Online Exclusive Fiction: Barnie and Me

Illustration by Alejandra Paton //

Barnie and Me


The specialist delivers the bad news himself.  He looks professional in his white coat, though way too young to be announcing anything so serious.  He is slim, his brown eyes are sincere and his hands, slim with long fingers, look like those of a surgeon’s (though they aren’t; he’s a neurologist),.  Still as he looks at me with empathy, I can’t help but fixate on an imperfection:one stray black nose hair curls out of his left nostril.  

“Mrs. Benson, did you hear me?  Do you understand?” His voice penetrates and breaks my fascination with his single nostril hair.  I look up to make eye contact.

“I’m not sure,” I say.  In truth, I am afraid I don’t want to understand.  I can tell what he has said is not what I want to hear.  I’ve been fooling myself for a while — ever since they discovered the little tumour.

Dr. Evanski repeats what he has just said: “We are going to have to remove the tumour.  It’s te source of your headaches and the popping you’ve been hearing. You’re lucky it’s in the position it is.  The surgery should be relatively simple.”

Three words stick out for me.  ‘Lucky?’ Is he kidding? If I was lucky I wouldn’t be here, would I?  ‘Surgery?’ Great. I wonder how he would feel about someone poking around in his brain.  It’s your brain, for God’s sake.  ‘Simple?’ What is simple about brain surgery?  Isn’t that the saying when someone makes a stupid mistake?  “It’s not brain surgery.”  

I’m surprised at my anger.  I would like to hit someone or something and I’m not a violent person.  I’m going to be sixty in a couple of months. Sixty year old women are pretty nonviolent for the most part.  Damn, damn. But I have to find out when the surgery is,what I can expect.

So that’s what I ask.  I try to focus and it isn’t easy; that nose hair hasn’t gone anywhere.

“We’ll have to do an MRI to be sure of the tumour’s position and it’ll let us know what kind of tissue is present. You’re really very lucky.  Your type of tumour has a 95% chance that it’s non-malignant.”

I nod, not trusting myself to speak.  

Dr. Evanski continues, “I’ll get a date for the MRI and an appointment to see Dr. Blade, he’s our neurosurgeon.  World class, you couldn’t ask for someone better.” He holds his hand out. 

Dr. Blade? I shake the offered hand and Dr. Evanski leaves me to get myself together.  It’s bad enough that I have surgery to face, but I have to tell my husband George, too.  He doesn’t deal well with bad news. When things go wrong for me, he always has a facile answer and thinks that’s the solution.  I can’t talk to him about my concerns.

George waits in the reception area.  After all these years, he’s still a good looking man.  Medium tall, he’s missed the most part of the old man gut that his friends develop.  His hair is dark except around the temples and he sports his one concession to age, bifocals.  I don’t go right over, but watch as he flips through Sports Illustrated. That’s what I mean about George.  He doesn’t have a lot of patience. He likes to solve problems quickly.  

That’s why I elected to see the doctor by myself: George would have tried to pin him down.  Tried to get the MRI, surgery and recovery all looked after by the end of next week. It isn’t going to happen that way.

He senses me looking at him and puts the magazine down.  He smiles and gets up.

“What did the doctor say?”

I don’t want to talk about it in front of the rest of the patients.  

“I’ll tell you in the car,” I say.

When we get outside, it’s one of those perfect spring days, warm, no wind.  Robins challenge one another from the trees outside the clinic. Lilacs perfume the air and I can feel the soft spring sun on my face.  Shit. George won’t like it but if my surgery doesn’t come up until sometime in the fall, I won’t miss any of the summer.

Pop, pop.  There he goes.  Barney, my brain tumour.  Yeah, he’s there right on time to remind me that some days the headaches are enough to send me to bed.  Pop.  It’s like he has his own demanding personality.  

It’s kind of like when I was pregnant. This was mostly pre-ultrasound days, and I couldn’t shake the idea that there was a mischievous little alien developing in me.  You can’t see the baby but there it is, taking over more and more of your abdomen. When I say mischievous, I’m not being honest:here were days when I had fears that it might be a monster. I feel this way about Barney.  

George drives us out of the city and onto the highway.  I’m surprised he hasn’t asked about the appointment again.  As the traffic thins, he turns to me.

“So what did the doctor say?”

“There’s a tumour and I have to have surgery.”  To my dismay, I burst into tears. Shit. This is not how I meant to tell him.

The colour drains from George’s face.  “Are you sure?” he asks.

I cry harder.  Am I sure? What the hell kind of question is that?  It’s a George question: maybe the problem will disappear because the tumour was just one big mistake.

“I’m sorry,” George says.  “That was stupid.”

I’m shocked.  I blow my nose and get more controlled, as I know George can’t handle tears.

“I have to have an MRI first,” I say.  “And I have to see the surgeon and then they’ll operate.”

“That’s good,” says George.  “Did he say when?”

I am suddenly thankful.  George hasn’t asked the obvious, “Is it cancer?”  

“He doesn’t know, but he’s going to have the appointments made and then they’ll phone me.  I hope it can wait till the fall.”

George looks at me. “Really?”

“Yes,” I say.  “I don’t want to miss the summer with operations and hospital stays.”  

“Then I guess we wait and see.”  

I look out as the fresh green fields slide past my window.  Even the aspen bluffs are lush with new leaves. The roadside sloughs are shared by Canada geese and various species of duck.  Red-winged black birds confront one another from the tops of last year’s bullrushes. The sky is a never-ending blue with cotton ball clouds.  

We plan our summer and I pretend that Barney doesn’t exist, and it works until that darkest hour before sunrise.  Even in the long daylight hours of the northern spring, there is a dark hour. Something wakes me every night and that’s when Barney asserts his presence.  Sometimes it’s just those little pops, kind of like the sound tiny soap bubbles make when they burst;sometimes, it’s more of a cracking and Most disturbing of all, sometimes Barney speaks.

“You don’t really want to be rid of me.”  He sends a warm glow out when he does this.  Sometimes he talks about things that happened long ago,things I thought I had forgotten but when he sends the image, I remember.  Like the time that I made my brother follow me through the tunnel under the railway track.

Barney must be lying. I’m mildly claustrophobic and can’t imagine voluntarily crawling down a dark tunnel with a musty dirt floor.  I call my brother to check. He confirms the memory, adding that my big butt blocked the light. After we’re done talking, I hang up and Barney sends a smug little “I told you.”

I start to look forward to my time with Barney, never once thinking that his presence isn’t desirable, that he might not have my best interests at heart.  

One hot July day, the phone call comes.  It’s the neurosurgeon’s office and my operation is set for September 13th.  There are other details which I duly note, but all I can think is that when I have the operation, my dates with Barney will end.  

I tell George the date for my operation.  

He says, “That’s a relief.  I can stay at Ben’s.”  

Ben is his younger brother, married but with no kids.  I guess it’ll be a holiday for him. This is a bitter thought, so I keep it  to myself and then wish I’d said something. It’s a done deal for George and he leaves to putter in his shop.  

I wish I’d said, “I might not have the operation.  That’s an option, you know.” Maybe that would wipe the complacency from his face. The truth is I’m not so sure I want to risk my life to end Barney’s.  I start to look forward to the nighttime darkness and his revelations.  

Last night he told me about my past lives.  Did you know I was a lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn?  He warned me it didn’t end well, but then it was the court of Henry the Eighth.  He didn’t tell me the whole story,it was getting too late and he said he was tired.  I suspect he’s tempting me, but I can’t wait to hear about my adventures with Anne. Barney confides that all of George’s ancestors were peasants.  Not that this surprises me.

One night in early August, George catches me speaking with Barney.  I haven’t been sleeping in the same bed as George since June. At first I was too restless and I thought it wasn’t fair to him.  Then I began to resent him, fast asleep as I lay there waiting for Barney.

“Who are you talking to?” George  demands as he comes into the den. “I hear voices.”

He hears voices, of course. Barney is channeling different historical characters who had been my friends.  Talk about insane — George is wild-eyed with his hair sticking out in all directions and he needs a shave. It’s warm in the house, so his sleeping attire consists of a pair of faded, print boxers with  a pattern of red skulls. The hair on his head is matched for thickness by his chest hair where it grows wiry and white. Bony old legs and sagging biceps.  

“You must have been dreaming,” I say, and for once Barney keeps quiet. 

George looks around. “Who’s here?”

“No one’s here,” I say in my best sarcastic tone.

George yawns and looks around again.  “I was sure I heard someone.”

“Go back to bed, George. You’re imagining things.”

He turns and heads back to bed.  I watch him head down the hall and decide to go to bed myself.  

September 13th arrives: it’s the big day, and I wake up long before George.  I have never slept well in hotel beds but, at his insistence, we had taken a room at the Fantasyland Hotel,ike it’s some kind of holiday.  We did go out for a nice supper but I had to watch what I ate and couldn’t have a glass of wine. Anesthetic, you know.  

Last night Barney begged and blustered and threatened.  What can he do if I let the surgeon take him out?

Gooseflesh rises along my arms.  Will I let them remove Barney? I can hear him weeping, tiny little sobs.  But lately I’ve been frightened that he’s taking over.  

George is no help:nce he heard us in the den that night, he has kept to himself.

You’d be surprised at the things Barney and I experienced.  Travel, history, parallel worlds. A part of me whispers that it isn’t normal, that I shouldn’t let him take me away.  But there is so much more he could show me.

Time passes and before I know it, we have to go.

“Ready?” asks George.  He’s been very solicitous and carries my suitcase for me.  “Do you have everything you need?” he asks. “If you forget anything, I’ll buy you a replacement.” 

He looks anxious, so even though I would like to talk to him about Barney it’s way too late now.  I hear Barney’s soft sniffles and look sharply at George. Either he doesn’t hear them or he is ignoring them, not out of meanness but because he never could handle tears.

It’s a short drive and one of those great autumn days that trick you into thinking summer will linger forever.  The hospital is a harsh contrast. It smells like antiseptic and sickness and I want to turn around and run. Barney makes nervous pops.  George walks too fast.  

The nurses try to make everything easy.  It’s too cheery and upbeat for me, and Barney is incensed.  His crackling and popping horrifies me. George feels better, though, now that the nurses are in charge. Before I know it, I am gowned and in a hospital bed and George is sitting on the chair nearby.  

“Did I tell you Kara called to wish you luck?” he asks.

“Three times,” I say.  I’m not going to the casino; I’m having a brain operation.  George checks his watch and starts guiltily when I see him. 

“Sorry,” he says.  “I’m just nervous.”

“Why don’t you go on out?” I say.  “Get breakfast and coffee, buy a paper.  I’d prefer some time by myself.”

The look of relief is instant.  

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

If George leaves, Barney and I can talk.  I want to say good-bye to him. I know that isn’t reasonable but we have spent a lot of lonely nights together.  He’s a part of me. I stopped thinking of him as an alien growth sometime just after I saw the neurosurgeon.  

Barney’s voice is flat and lifeless.  

“You don’t have to keep me, if you don’t want to.” 

And then it is silent. If I let them cut Barney away, is this how it’s going to be?  Silent? I know I have to decide. I know that no one can make me have the operation.  I am aware that it’s my brain and my choice.  

“I wish the tables were turned,” says Barney.  “I’d never get rid of you.”

Oh, it’s unfair.  That’s all he says, and then he lets me see how dull it is without him: colours are paler, smells dampened, sounds muted. .  

I look at the clock on the wall: 10:30.  I have a half hour to decide — Barney or no Barney?  My thoughts swirl.  

The minute hand moves and I hear the nurses out in the hallway.  I still have time to save him. Oh, what should I do?

Linda is a writer working on a novel edit. Shes likes to write stories about ordinary people in unusual circumstances. Her hobbies include reading, gardening, and walking her dogs. Her grandkids are her great joy.

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