Ch.4 Invisible Girl
The first time Awut tried to kill himself was when his genetic test came back positive. I found him lying on the bathroom floor with sleeping pills scattered all over. I took him to the emergency room and he threw up a bit, before a doctor made him drink activated charcoal. He was then hooked up to a heart monitor and the doctors put a line in him to draw blood and give him saline. After they concluded that Awut wasn’t going to die, an ambulance transferred him to a specialized facility, where he was put on a three-day mental hold. Awut told me that he spent most of his days hanging out in the lounge and talking with other suicide and self-harm survivors. A guy told him that people hurt themselves because of anger and that he needed to learn healthy ways to address it. So when Awut was released, he tried to teach me a game called “knuckles,” where we put our knuckles on a table and flick coins as hard as we can across the table at the other person to make them bleed. The loser is whoever flinches first.
Awut flinches when he sees me approaching. There are wires glued to his chest and coming up from the neck of his hospital gown. The gown has no back and lets everyone see the fat parts my brother might want to hide. It is the most embarrassing garment ever invented. Both his hands and legs are also strapped to the hospital bed as if he’s a cow about to be slaughtered. The doctors finally decided to restrain him after his countless attempts to hurt himself and others. His pupils dilate, black and with adrenaline, like rabid animal’s eyes– wild, unfocused, and full of rage. His wretched eyes are glued to my face because there is nothing else to do but lie in his bed, emaciated, and possessed. He begs me to kill him with desperate eyes.
I say quietly, “Did the voices in your head tell you to drown yourself in the tub?”
Awut opens his mouth to say something but hesitates. He then opens it again and says, “T-they said that if I don’t, you’ll come and dr-drown me yourself.” His voice is more staggering than the last time we spoke. It takes him more effort to finish his sentences. “J-just do it already! Kill me and get it o-over with!” He spits at me.
Paranoid schizophrenia-like symptoms occur in 6-25% of Huntington’s disease cases and my brother is one of them. Other than paranoia, Awut also suffers from auditory hallucinations. There are many types of hallucinations, including visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory and tactile.
I slowly put my hand on his arm and notice how unusually stiff he is. He tries to pull away but has no control over his movement. His body twitches and his muscles spasm. I say calmly, “Why would I hurt you, Awut?”
“Because y-you’re just like him. You’re like f-father.” His limbs jerk involuntarily and his face grimaces, “Y-you want to get rid of this d-demon inside me like father did to mother.”
I touch the scar that runs across my forehead and licks away my brow. The memories of the shaman my father hired to whip my mom with the dried stingray tail rush back to me. I tried to protect her and was marred as a result. Despite my efforts, we ended up losing my mother anyway. My knees weaken and I kneel down beside Awut’s bed. I place my forehead on his arm and he struggles beneath my touch. “I’m not like him.” I feel tears trickle down my face and I fight to keep my voice straight, “If anything, I could turn out just like you and mom.”
Awut’s breathing becomes less erratic and his body relaxes slightly. When I lift my head and look at him, I notice that his facial expression softens. I say, “Awut, I think I’m ready to take the test.”
I wake up beside Sujin. My cheeks are covered with a cocktail of sweat and tears. I’m breathing heavily. Sujin leans over me and brushes a wet strand of hair out of my face. I asked him to be my counselor for the genetic test but he refused. He said he’s already attached to me and it is unethical for him to be my physician.
I shouldn’t get involved with him. But waiting for my test result has been so stressful that I often find myself getting drunk and ending up in his bed. He gently grabs my hand and whispers, “Are you okay?” That’s become his constant question. Almost recited.
It’s been almost two weeks since my genetic test and I have one day left until the result is out. Although specific procedures vary among testing centers, genetic testing for Huntington’s disease generally involves several sessions, including pre-test genetic counseling, neurological examination and psychiatric interview, that can last for months. The genetic test itself is a simple blood test. The blood sample is sent to a laboratory where DNA testing is performed to check for the expanded CAG repeat within the Huntington gene. My fate depends on these three little letters. If the CAG repeat size is less than 35 repeats, I do not carry the genetic mutation for the disease. But if I carry more than 40 CAG repeats, I test positive and am cursed with the devastating illness.
I often wake up gasping, my eyes hunting frantically for the family I’ve lost and the family I have decided not to have. This cursed disease can extend its claws and prey on the next, innocent generation. Even though I’m not religious, I often find myself praying to all the gods in every religion in hope that one of them can overturn this curse. I try not to show my concerns but my eyes always betray me. Sujin often tells me that I can still have a family if I want to. He says that I can get what he calls ‘Test tubes babies’ through pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. I respect those who choose that path but I still don’t want my children to witness my mental and physical deterioration like Awut and I went through with our mother. I stare at the wall across from us, lost in my nightmare, and Sujin has to tap my foot with his to snap me out of it.
“I’m fine,” I say as I look away. Sujin develops the habit of stroking my hair and kissing my tears away. He runs his hand down my scarred back. Even though I received this unwanted art piece years ago during the fire my brother started to rescue our mom from the shaman, the smell of my burning flesh still haunts me. My tender skin has toughened into an unnatural patch of quilt work. I despise the pattern but Sujin always reassures me that I’m beautiful. A labored breath escapes my lips and I snap at him. “Stop.” The lump in my throat threatens to choke me. I say coldly, “I can’t be bothered with menial displays of affection right now when I have so much at stake.”
He removes his hand from me and pretends it doesn’t bother him. “If that’s what you want, Orasa.” His words, meant to be mature and comforting, instead sound faker the more he says them. “Well, I’m here if you want to talk about it, birdie.” His cheeks flush when he uses my nickname. The hint of a smile appears on his face, pulling me in with its irresistible warmth. But this time, he doesn’t try to hug me. He doesn’t reach for me or scoot closer to let our shoulders touch. He doesn’t stroke my hair, whisper reassuringly into my ear or rest his head against mine. I hadn’t realized how much I’ve grown to crave these little things he does.
I hear humming on the bed and I turn to Sujin. “Do you hear that?”
He looks at me, confused. “Uhh…I don’t think so.”
I grunt, “I swear I heard something.” I search through the sheets and finally find my vibrating phone.
I pick it up and hear a girl’s panic voice. I recognize it immediately. It’s the daughter of the acid assault patient I met in the emergency room. “D-doctor,” The girl sniffles. “Are you free right now?”
I look at the clock. It’s 4 in the morning. I have to perform a surgery in a couple of hours but the girl’s shaky voice prompts me to tell her otherwise. I reply, “Yes I’m free, kiddo. Where are you?”
“At the hospital,” the girl pants. It sounds like she’s running away from something and I can sense fear in her voice when she adds, “My father’s here. Please help me!” I hear the girl screams before the line goes quiet.
“Hey, kiddo! Hey!” I yell into the speaker but I hear no response. I try to redial but I go straight to voice mail. I immediately jump off the bed and scramble to get dressed.
Sujin asks, “What’s going on, birdie?”
I fumble to put on my buttoned clothes. I reply, “I just need to go somewhere.” My hands tremble slightly. It must be from my lack of sleep. “Can I borrow your car?” I pull out the drawer and grab his car keys before Sujin can reply.
He gets up from the bed. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t have time to explain!” I respond a little too aggressively and Sujin seems taken back by my outburst. I pace towards the door and mumble. “It’s just something I have to do.” I look at his befuddled face one last time before rushing out of the apartment.
I get inside the car and hit the pedal. I hit the pedal harder, wanting to go faster and wanting to scream, break something, rip out my hair, scratch my skin off or throw a punch through the window. But, I’m stuck. Bangkok traffic is betraying me. The girl’s scream still rings in my ears. Why is she running? Is her father abusing her? I’m so angry at the injustice the girl is facing. Why isn’t anyone at the hospital helping her? Why doesn’t anyone care? I try to redial the girl again but I still get no response. The burning rage inside me is tearing through me. I feel possessed, a puppet strung to the sadistic hand of a devil.
I finally arrive at the hospital’s underground parking lot. It’s mostly empty, except for a few cars, and it reeks of rotten sewage smell. There’s a glass door at the end that leads me to an elevator and a set of stairs. I run towards the door and swing it open. I bang my finger against the elevator’s button repeatedly. I tap my foot, impatient at its snail pace. It’s taking too long. I decide to use the stairs instead.
As I rush upstairs, I misstep and descend downward. I skid down a couple of steps on my back before I have the presence of mind to stop myself with my palms. I ease myself up to sitting, and I can already feel a nasty series of bruises blossoming on the knobs of my spine. I twist around to examine the stairs, expecting to blame some kind of obstruction. There’s nothing.
When I look up to the top of the stairs, I find the girl I’ve been looking for running towards me. How did she get here? Did she know I’d be here? Logic tries to reason with me but it quickly vanishes when I hear the girl screams.
“Help me!” The girl whimpers, “Please, doctor!”
I lift each arm up and notice that both my elbows are scraped and bleeding. But I don’t have time to examine it. I stand up and grab the girl’s hand. We need to get out of here before her father catches up.
“Where are you taking my daughter?” I hear a chilling voice echoing through the parking lot. I turn around to find a man eyeing the girl like a prized piece of prey. The man’s voice turns eerily calm as he walks towards us and politely says. “Doctor, this is a family affair. Please turn my daughter over. I just need to teach her a lesson that’s all.”
I take a deep breathe and say, “Sir, I’m sure whatever conflict you have with your daughter, we can resolve it over coffee.” I try to distract the man while keeping my chin down and eyeing the girl beside me. But, the first punch glance my chin. I notice too late it is a feint though and the second punch doubles me over and expels the last bit of choked air from my abdomen.
“Please don’t hurt the girl,” I say, lying on the concrete floor. I feel another blow to my guts. My eyes plead for the man to leave his daughter alone. Instead, the man grabs the girl by her hair and starts dragging her away from me. The girl screams again and again as he tugs her away. As if to mock the dire playing inside my head, the girl’s scream plays a familiar dance tune that reminds me of the times I screamed for help when my father punished me as a child.
I cough out blood. “Stop!”
The man stops walking and he turns around. He lets go of the girl’s hair. His face turns red at first but then his lips curl into a vicious, animalistic smile. I can’t decide whether to let my eyes rest on that wicked smile or on the girl’s teary face. Another blow throws me across the floor and my abdomen blazes with pain. I slump against a wall but bear the punishment silently. It is just another bruise. I have dealt with them before. “I heard you’re a surgeon,” the man finally speaks up. “I wonder what kind of trash you’ll be if you can’t operate anymore.”
He eyes my hands with a predatory gaze. Understanding comes later. “No! Please No! Not my hands! I beg you!” I scream but here, in the empty parking lot, no one can hear me.
I limp across the hospital lobby, cringing at the smell of puss leaking out of my bruised hands. I hide my hands behind my back when hospital staff members greet me. I don’t have time to explain my condition as I drag my feet across the floor. I need to get to the security room. There must be a camera in the parking lot. If I’m able to obtain the footage, I can use it as evidence to charge the girl’s father with domestic abuse. Even if the man bribes the police, hard evidence like video footage of him beating the girl up will surely get him arrested.
I’m so close to my destination when I see one of my surgical residents runs towards me. “Doctor, you’re here! We’ve been paging you all morning. You have a surgery to go to.” When he approaches me, he gapes. “Doctor…Did you get into an accident?”
He tries to examine the wound on my face but I push him away. I wince while doing so and the resident notices my bruised hands. His eyes shift between my hands and my face. He finally says, “Doctor, I don’t think you can operate in this condition. Don’t worry about the surgery. I’ll call in another attending surgeon while you get your injuries check out–”
“Just prep the OR!” I yell and I notice that everyone in the hospital lobby turns towards me. No one speaks but just stares at me. They’re all mocking me. They’re just like the elders in my village, who think all girls are worthless. Do they think that because I’m a woman, I can’t do my job as a surgeon? I despise the patriarchy in my country. White-hot rage consumes me, the pressure building up and pressing against every cell in my body. I’m sure I’ll physically explode if the rage doesn’t leave me. I turn to the resident and growl, “I said prep the OR! I’ll be there in a minute!”
I don’t bother to see his reaction but continue limping down the corridor. I find myself in the dark security room with the only source of light coming from sets of computer monitors hanging above the long metallic table. I point my finger to the screen and demand, “Check the underground parking lot about half an hour ago. A man was abusing my patient’s daughter.”
The two slightly obese guards stare at me. They’re holding grilled meatballs sticks in their hands and their mouths gape in confusion. They seem inexperienced and unsure of what to do. I roll my eyes. I ram one of the guards against the wall with my elbow and press him deeper into the wall. He drops his food on the ground and I yell, “Check it now!” I eye the other guard. He quickly throws his meatballs away and types something on the keyboard. When I see a screen pop up, I let the fat guard off my grip. He rubs his neck with wide eyes, scared out of his mind.
I pull a chair over and sit on it. My elbows rest on the table as I examine the footage on the screen. I point, “There! That’s the man I was talking about.”
The security guards exchange weird glances. “D-doctor…I think there’s a misunderstanding.”
I growl, “What are you talking about?” The footage is clear. It shows a middle aged man beating me senseless and pulling the girl by her hair away from me.
The guards blink confusedly. One of them finally speaks up, “The video…There’s just you in it….” He pauses for a long moment before he mutters, “You’re throwing your fists against the wall.”
What are they saying? That’s absurd. The girl’s father must have bribed these pigs to say all this nonsense. “How much did he pay you?” Heat rushes through me. “Is that why you’re turning a blind eye?”
“No doctor,” The guards raise both their hands defensively. “Please, doctor. Please calm down.”
I push back from the table to stand, but the push is dramatic and forceful, and the chair crashes to the crappy linoleum floor. I stumble over the upturned legs as I back up, and now both the chair and I are on the ground.
I hear mocking laughs leak out of the guard’s mouths. “How dare you make fun of me?!” I bellow. The guards quickly shake their heads and tell me they didn’t. Liars.
Now riding the back of humiliation, my rage accelerates. Ignoring the throbbing pain of my bruised hands, I stand up, lift the chair by two legs, and smash it against the floor. The legs crack off and several of the back spindles break apart. I toss the legless chair to the ground and march towards the guards.
I look at them and grunt, “What’s your name? I have to get to surgery but once I’m done, I’ll make sure I get incompetent fools fired.”
Both of them look at me in horror. They won’t answer me so I look at their nametags. I pull out my phone to jot down their names. But my hands suddenly feel weak. My fingers flick, as if they are doing their tap dance over my phone screen and ignoring my command. I’m concentrating on my fingers as if I’m performing the most difficult surgery in the world. I try to will my thumbs to type down the names of the security guards onto my phone, but no amount of focus will stop them from trembling.
Heat is building inside me, and I’m holding my breath, losing patience, about to throw the stupid phone to the ground. Even though the room has an air conditioner, the air suddenly feels thick with moisture and humidity. The heat is unbearable and I feel a bead of sweat slowly drip down my neck and sacrifice itself to the cotton confines of my already damp shirt. The entire room seems to be slowly melting. I could swear those security guards were a few inches fatter a couple minutes ago.
When I look up, I’m surprised to find the girl standing beside my surgical resident. She has a gash across her forehead. Instead of helping the wounded girl, the resident rushes to me and says, “Please doctor…Please pull yourself together.”
I point my finger at the girl, “Why aren’t you helping her?” Apparently the girl’s father must have bribed the resident too. I spit in his face. “Can you even call yourself a doctor? How much did the acid assault patient’s husband pay you to turn your eyes away from their abused daughter?”
“Doctor…” He’s sweating, frazzled and directing his eyes towards where I’m pointing. He takes a deep breath before whispering, “I can’t see the girl, doctor. Besides, the acid assault patient doesn’t have a daughter.”
My eyes widen. What is he saying? Of course she has a daughter. She is standing right in front of me. Before I can retort, I feel a pair of small arms wrap around me. I look down to find the girl hugging me. She pleads, “Please doctor. Don’t listen to them. To them, I’m just a poor girl. No one cares about a poor, abused girl.” She cries, “To them, I’m invisible. But you care about me. To you, I’m real.”
I look at the girl’s wound across her forehead. It singes her eyebrow and slightly misses her eye. I frown. “Did your father give you that?”
The girl shakes her head. “No.” The girl takes few steps away from me and says quietly, “The shaman did…with a dried stingray tail.” She pauses before speaking in a somber tone. “I tried to stop him from hurting my mom and I got hurt as a result.”
I hear my heartbeat pulsing in my ears, blocking out all other sound except the breath that is raggedly moving in and out of my mouth at irregular, gasping intervals. I cannot tear my eyes away from the girl. The wound across the girl’s forehead has captured me. I cannot comprehend what is happening to me. The connection has to hold. If it breaks, I fear something within me might break as well. I step towards the girl but she takes another step back. I grab her arm and twirl her tiny body around. I pull her shirt up and stumble back when I see a burnt scar running its tongue across her back. I trip over my feet and fall to the ground. I raise my trembling finger towards her and ask, “W-who are you?”
The girl turns around and heads towards me. I push myself backward until I’m trapped against the wall. She looks down to me and puts her palms together in a Thai prayer-like position as if she is greeting me for the first time. She smiles and says, “I’m you.”