Excerpt of Tom Stern’s MY VANISHING TWIN

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BY TOM STERN

It seemed to Walter Braum there were but a few defining moments in a life, the rest of one’s time filled with uncertainty, confusion, and incongruence. While the moment of Walter’s diagnosis should, it seemed to him, fit snugly into the former category, it instead displayed all the emotional characteristics of the latter — all the way down to what was quickly proving itself to be the standard, unconcerned monotone of Walter’s HMO-assigned doctor, a one Dr. Grunburg, as he explained. . .

“And then something unexpected occurred.”

. . .from within the profoundly indifferent constructs of examination room number seven on the sixth floor of a complementarily nondescript building on a corner in the city in which Walter had lived the entirety of the first 35 years of his lackluster life.

Hearing such words come out of a doctor’s mouth, tone irrespective, caused Walter anything but calm. As such, Walter was anything but calm. In fact, Walter could not even manage a word as he waited for some sympathy and an explanation.

Dr. Grunburg, however, was apparently capable of only the explanation.

“What we initially thought was a tumor,” the doctor stated with a conviction commensurate with an aloud reading of the periodic table of elements, “was not a tumor.”

“What was it, then?” semi-barked Veronica, the only other current occupant of exam room seven, as well as the only other participant in Walter’s long-since-middling romance, offering these words as more of a statement than a question before tightening her grip upon Walter’s hand as if to punctuate the sentence.

Walter might have found this endearing had endearment not ceased many years ago in their relationship. At least on Walter’s side of things, anyway—which was all he really knew anymore.

In this particular moment, he found himself far more focused on the subtle yet likely significant adoption, by both Veronica and Dr. Grunburg, of the past tense to describe the “not tumor” that was nevertheless still very much parked deep within Walter’s abdomen.

“Is,” Walter managed to blurt out. “You are saying ‘was.’”

Both Dr. Grunburg and Veronica looked at Walter, either confused or simply unwilling to acknowledge the reality of the current situation. Walter had no idea which, but either scenario across any combination of the two led Walter to wonder what could be classified as worse than a tumor, since whatever he had must clearly be worse than a tumor.

But before he could posit an adequately horrific answer to his own question, Dr. Grunburg resumed speaking in his all but trademarked lack of compassion. What he said, as it turns out, at the very least merited its own chapter in the evolving tomes of medical history.

“It’s a person,” the doctor stated.

Silence. Breathless, motionless silence.

Walter pushed immediately past the realm of language altogether and into a space of pure uncertainty as to what use words really had at all.

Veronica did manage to conjure a word or two, but stopped short of speaking them upon the recognition that any question she asked at this point could not possibly have an adequate explanation.

“It’s a living person,” Dr. Grunburg reiterated, his tone suggesting a mere repetition of his previous statement in the event that Walter had not heard him, but his diction clearly adding a profoundly significant modifier that fundamentally shifted the meaning of the declaration altogether.

“Living?” Walter belch-spat-bellow-exhaled, so suddenly numb that even after the word left his mouth, he could not be certain that he had actually spoken it.

“That’s how it has grown to its current size over the past several months,” the doctor explained as though this were an insultingly obvious truth.

“So Walter wasn’t getting fat?” Veronica asked, again in the form of an avowal. “I asked you a thousand fucking times if I was getting fat,” Walter charged, his speech faculties suddenly able to function again, but only in the spaces adjacent to the actual topic at hand, namely the living not-tumor in his abdomen. “And you, a thousand fucking times, said no.”

“And I was right,” Veronica fired back, clearly equally desirous of any topic of discussion other than that most relevant and pressing one before them.

“On a technicality!”

“Right is right!”

As their argument escalated, Dr. Grunburg removed a pamphlet from Walter’s file and presented it to the space between the faux-feuding couple.

But Walter’s arms would not work.

So Veronica snatched up the glossy rectangle, not that she really waited for Walter’s arms to have a chance to function anyway.

Her hasty acquisition of a document containing presumably relevant information seemed to force Walter into the semi-action of asking, “How is it alive?”

“Vanishing Twin Syndrome?” Veronica inadvertently answered Walter’s question as she read the title of the pamphlet in question form.

“Your case,” Dr. Grunburg persisted in his inability to care any less, “is an aberration, of course. But we believe it is grounded in the same phenomenon.”

Walter was not comfortable with the doctor’s use of the first person plural—it betrayed the apparent truth that someone outside of this room might also be aware of Walter’s…circumstance.

*****

When the car finally parked in front of Walter and Veronica’s apartment complex, neither of them actually got out. It was as if the silence would not let them, as if the silence itself needed to be broken before anything more could occur. So Walter started with his last memory of where they had left off.

“You thought I was getting fat,” he stated, picking up the irrelevant and thereby viable topic.

Veronica’s face soured.

“Yes,” she finally admitted, unwilling or unable to concoct another distraction or excuse.

Walter was, surprisingly, not offended by this point conceded. In fact, he took a certain degree of solace in her honesty.

“Thank you,” he said. Veronica nodded.

This momentary note of understanding between the two, a hiccup in their otherwise well-established trend of increased bickering, was potent enough by contrast to give Veronica the kernel of strength and resolve necessary to open the door and get out of the car.

Walter assumed he would do the same, but found himself motionless still under the weight of a sudden and surging swell of revulsion that flooded every synapse of his brain, blocking all volition from traveling down his spine and manifesting itself into even the simplest of actions.

“Walter,” spat Veronica, “come on.”

He tried again. But he could not.

His arms, his legs, his brain, his spine, it was almost as if he suddenly no longer knew these facets of his matter well enough to make them move. The very same parts he had effortlessly relied upon for as long as his memory stretched now seemed simply other, foreign, as though they existed somewhere outside of him, as though his matter was actually quite different from what he had always believed it to be, forcing him now to relearn what he had just moments ago considered certain. He knew of no other man in the history of men who had a mutant life form alive inside of him. He was a freak and had been for who knows how long. All the while he had considered himself a normal man. In fact, he had made countless life decisions based upon this very assumption.

When he was sixteen years old, for example, he slept with Alison Pruitt who was a fairly average girl all around. Not too bright. Not too pretty. But not not these things, either. He wasn’t terribly excited about her, but he told himself that he didn’t have to be. Because that was what people did. They lost their virginity to whomever they could. But now, paralyzed and alone in his girlfriend’s car, Walter could not help but ask himself whether this was indeed not what people did, but was perhaps instead what freaks with mutants in their bellies did.

Or when he lost that fight with Charles Jipman in the second grade and he told himself that everyone loses fights sometimes. So he opted not to come back at Charles again and again until he finally won because that wasn’t what people did. But maybe that was actually exactly what people did, and rolling over was what life forms befitting bad science fiction did.

Or when he was in third grade and started listening to his father’s records and decided that he wanted to be a rock star but he told no one.

Or, when he won that fight with Leo Sisczek in the fifth grade and he walked around with his head held high, feeling like a champ even though he was also secretly avoiding Leo at all costs for fear that he would come back again and again until he finally beat Walter down. Avoiding a rematch, he told himself, is what anyone would do. A reassurance he was now forced to question.

Or when, in sixth grade, he secretly wanted to start taking guitar lessons, like Abel Simmons was, but was too afraid he would be terrible and that his dream of being a rock star would be shattered. He wanted to grow his hair long like Abel’s, too, but he figured it would just let on that he wanted to take guitar lessons but was too afraid.

Or when he had been caught shoplifting in seventh grade and lied to get out of it.

Or when he had resolved never to accept another penny from his mostly deadbeat father at the age of fourteen but just couldn’t make it work until he was seventeen and his father passed anyway.

Or when he was thirteen and asked Connie Mulder out on a date and she said, in response, “No, thank you.” And he secretly cried and spent three years trying to convince himself that he didn’t like her.

Or when he was sixteen and asked Connie Mulder out on a date and she said, in response, “Still no, thank you.” And then he berated himself for having rendered null three years of hard work getting over her.

Or when he was seventeen and he told Connie Mulder to just go out with him already, but she still wouldn’t budge. And then he berated himself for wasting another year of effort.

Or when he was still seventeen and asked Connie Mulder why she wouldn’t go out with him and she said, flatly, “I’m not into you, okay?”

When he made the JV soccer team, but rode the bench the entire season even though he suited up with hope before each game.

When he bought his first car and it broke down irreparably three days later.

When he walked circles around the block but never mustered the courage to go in and sign himself up for singing lessons. Or bass lessons. Or piano.

When he moved into his first shitty apartment only to wind up listening to loud sex leaking through the ceiling from the upstairs neighbor until 3:00 a.m. most nights, but never bothered attempting to get out of the lease.

All of these were things that he had done or not done because anyone would do them or not do them. But he had been far from anyone. He had been a mutant of sorts. Or at the very least a mutant in the making. He had simply considered himself anyone, erroneously as it turns out.

The biggest life decision, it now dawned on him, sitting here all but paralyzed in Veronica’s car, that he suddenly worried might have been made as anyone might make it was his decision, some twelve years ago, to take a job as a salesman at Sheprick Consolidated. He remembered a suffocating tension in his chest on the afternoon he received the job offer. But he had no other opportunities. He didn’t even have a career path to pursue. He had a college degree and a burgeoning ulcer about the future and that was about it. He knew he had to take the offer. But as stupid as it sounds, he remembered being fixated on the fact that he could think of not a single rock star who had started out as a salesman. Granted, he still had never gotten up the courage to start learning an instrument, or to learn even the first thing about music in general. But he still loved lying on his kitchen floor with headphones on and volume turned up. Not the Top 40 stuff, either. But the stuff that people made because it seemed like they would lose their minds if they didn’t. As though these ideas, these words, these sounds were locked somewhere inside of them and they simply had to get it out. He wondered whether he had such things locked up inside of him. And if so, what they might sound like. But he never found his way past wondering. And even though he labored over the decision an entire sleepless night, he finally resigned himself to the knowledge that not just anyone ever really became a rock star. And he was, indeed and as far as he knew at the time anyway, someone who was anyone. So even though he knew even less about being a salesman than he did about being a rock star, he took the job because it was the type of job that anyone would take. Only a rock star would turn it down.

Walter’s head went woozy.

And as his perception started to spiral and spin, he attempted to console himself with the silly, random, trifle of a thought that maybe it was a good thing after all that he had never become a rock star, as his current and unprecedented circumstance would likely be shatteringly difficult to endure under the magnifying glass-scrutiny of the modern media and the general public at large were they invested in his musical career. Whereas notably fewer people, if any at all, would truly care about a salesman in the very same circumstances. This thought was meant to be conciliatory, but it surprisingly brought with it no consolation. Before Walter could consider why, his senses snapped off, replaced with complete silence and nothingness. . .


Stern is the author of the novels My Vanishing Twin and Sutterfeld, You Are Not A Hero, both published by Rare Bird Books. He is also the writer/director of the feature films Half-Dragon Sanchez and This Is A BusinessTom‘s films have played festivals across the United States and in Europe. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Eckerd College and an MFA in Film Production from Chapman University. Tom lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Cheryl, and his daughter, Ramona. 

 

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