It has been one week since the surgery and my stomach still feels taught and tender; the skin around my abdomen yellowed with bruising, a meaty red line bisecting me where my appendix used to be. If I look closely I can make out the white threads of stitching keeping my insides inside. If I think about it enough I can feel that there is something different beyond the scar now.
It had started as a stomach ache. Maybe I had eaten some bad food, I had thought, and I passed it off as the noodles I had eaten the day before. But later that night there was a shift. The squirming pain moved down and round, and I lay in my bed sweating and shaking and Googling symptoms. I went to hospital and they waved me through like they were expecting me. It happens all the time, I was told. I was lucky I came in when I did. Some people were past saving by the time they thought to seek help. In the olden days that stomach ache was a death sentence.
They processed me smoothly and before I knew it I had a drip in my arm and a little cup of pills to stop me feeling the burning inside my body. I feel like I’m digesting myself, I told the nurse. He told me he’d actually had a patient like that once. Her stomach eating itself. Her cheeks sunken with irony. Her skeleton starting to shine through her skin. They talked me though the operation and asked me to sign a form I was too blurry to read properly. Then they wheeled me in and I stared at the ceiling tiles as the world around me whirled into nothingness.
When I woke up I felt like I had been in a car accident. My whole body ached through the painkillers. The doctor came to the foot of my bed and told me that the operation was a success, that he’d never seen an appendix so inflamed, that I should thank my stars I came in when I did. He made a joke about something medical I didn’t quite get and left. I was sent home the next morning.
Since then I’ve started each morning the same way. I unfold myself from my bed like a paper crane, hoping the delicate wound won’t split me in half as I rise, and go through to the bathroom. The light above the mirror shows everything as it is and I turn back and forth, watching my skin try to knit itself back together. Some days the redness seems to blaze with anger, some days the surrounding skin seems like it’s made of wax or clay. Then I shower with a plastic bag taped to my stomach and dress in loose-fitting clothes for another day of pills and box-set TV shows.
They’d given me a few leaflets to take home with me but there’s one in particular I keep coming back to. It talks a lot about post-op care but there’s one little paragraph which keeps catching my eye. It talks about how many people feel a strange sensation inside their bodies after surgery. A numbness, some people reported, or a swelling sensation. Some people felt as if their innards had been entirely rearranged; their hearts beating too far to the right, their lungs inflating too close to their pelvis. I always think about this when I stand in front of the mirror.
There are some mornings where I think I can still feel my appendix, even though I had never felt it before when it was actually in there. There are mornings where I feel a bubbling, squirming sensation; as if an eel were wriggling its way through my body. There are mornings where I swear I can feel the rubber touch of the doctor’s fingers inside my abdomen. There is a number to call on the leaflet but I have never bothered with it yet. Most time I just remind myself that it is a common side-effect of surgery, that lots of people feel this way, and then I go back to the couch to take my next antibiotic.
This morning is no different. The thoughts come to me like usual. The certainty that there is something different at my core. Something moved or moving. Something still shifting inside me. I tell myself it’s nothing. It’s nothing. I look at my scar and the puckering of stitches they said would slowly dissolve as I heal. I look at the ripple of bruising around it. I imagine how much force, how much trauma, my body endured while I was unconscious. I think about how some memories are memories, living inside your head, while some are injuries, scarred into your flesh. And then I see it.
The skin above my scar paling slightly, like I’m rolling it through my fingers, squeezing out the blood. It’s a small area, no bigger than my hand, perhaps. I fix my eyes on it as my mouth turns clammy and tart. Slowly, I push my fingers into the pale area. It feels swollen and puffy and cold. I press my skin harder and the paleness gives way to pinkness again, and the swelling goes down. Except it doesn’t disappear. It moves. Underneath my scar now, by my hip, my skin grows swollen and pallid. A visible lump pushes out like a hernia.
My mind whirrs with thoughts. I remember reading about a patient who sued the hospital after a surgeon stitched her up leaving a glove inside her. Another who’d been found with a surgical tool left behind. I taste vomit and sweat pools on my skin. I press and press and each time the lump moves. It pushes at the scar next and I nearly faint as the raw skin stretches and seeps. There is a moment where I think I can see something behind the stitching, where the skin has split open again. Something pale and pulsing; something coiled and raw.
But when I push my fingers down I can’t see it anymore and the swelling moves to a different part of my skin again. I remind myself that thoughts like this are a common side-effect after surgery, that lots of people think that they see or feel strange things like this. I tell myself that all of this will heal in time. I turn the shower on and tape the water-proof bag around my abdomen, the surging mass in my stomach disappearing under glossy black plastic. The hot water stings my skin and I wash carefully while my hospital leaflet lies by the sink. It curls and coils in the condensation as I tell myself again that all of this will heal in time.
Samuel Best‘s short fiction has been published in magazines in Britain, North America, and Scandinavia. His début novel ‘Shop Front’ has been described as ‘A howl and a sigh from Generation Austerity’ and he founded the literary magazines Octavius and Aloe. You can find him on social media @storiesbysamuel.
photo by Günter / moritz320 (via pixabay)