11 Jul Short Story: Red Snowballs
I’m working on a book of short stories. Here’s one from the collection. I’d love your feedback.
“You look sad today, Gretchen,” Tommy said as they sat on the playground grass. He held a small truck in his hand.
She looked up and a frown crossed her mouth but never made it to her eyes.
“That’s because my momma’s sad.”
“Why is she sad?” he asked, looking at the truck but not making it push dirt or unload what he imagined it had gathered.
“I’m not sure.”
“She didn’t tell you? Did you ask her?”
“She and my papa tried to explain it to me, but I really didn’t know what they were talking about. Something about a man named Luke.”
Tommy had an uncle named Luke but he lived far away and he was pretty sure Gretchen wasn’t talking about him.
“Is Luke your uncle or something?” he asked.
“No. He’s a disease.”
Tommy knew that word. His momma used it whenever he didn’t feel good. But he didn’t know any man like that.
“Like a bad man or something?”
“Yes, very bad according to my momma. And he’s in my body. He invaded my body.”
That didn’t make any sense to Tommy. He wanted to ask how a man could be inside the body of his friend, but he didn’t even know how to ask. And he didn’t want to sound dumb to her. He liked Gretchen ever since he saw her in first grade and he would rather play with her than some of his buddies. Most of the time at least.
He did find a way to try and comfort her by saying, “My papa is a doctor. Maybe he can…find a way…to make you all better.”
She brightened at that. “But I already have a doctor. He wears a white coat.”
“My papa is a special doctor. Is your doctor special?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“Maybe that would make my momma feel better, too,” she finally said.
Tommy smiled back at her. “My papa can make anybody feel better. He’s the best doctor ever. Just you wait and see.”
Then Tommy remembered that he and Gretchen had promised not to tell their secrets to anyone. Not even their mommas and papas. They made that promise to each other the day they had held hands in line at the museum on the field trip. Nobody had noticed and they didn’t think it was wrong, but still they made a pact not to tell anybody. Forever and ever.
“Can I tell him about this man Luke?” he asked, picking up the truck and inspecting the wheels.
“Yes,” she whispered, “but only him. Okay?”
Tommy nodded and put the truck back on the ground and began to imagine it pushing a big load of dirt off the playground grass.
That evening Tommy’s momma hunched over the kitchen sink finishing up the dinner dishes. She rolled her neck first to the right and then to the left and cocked her head in that direction and held it there. Then she pushed her chin to the sky. As she contorted her head in all directions, Tommy’s papa looked up from his newspaper.
Tommy colored in his Spiderman book alongside his papa at the dining room table.
“When you’re done, come join me on the couch,” papa said to his momma as he moved to the nearby sofa.
“Can I come, too?” Tommy asked.
“Sure, buddy,” his papa said, pointing to the coffee table in front of him. “You can color here, if you promise not to get crayon marks on the table.”
“I promise,” Tommy said, sitting on his knees in front of the wooden table.
His momma ruffled his hair as she plopped down beside her husband.
“Long day?” he asked as he grabbed her hand and kissed it, smelling the coconut lotion she always added after doing the dishes.
She nodded and began to stretch her neck again.
“Headache?” he asked.
“Yes, Mr. Wizard, care to dissolve it for me?” she answered, smiling directly at him.
“It’s my heart’s desire, my love.”
Tommy kept coloring but looked back at his parent often.
“Get comfortable,” his papa instructed. “And take a few deep breaths. Again.”
His momma lay back against the cushions and began breathing deeply as Tommy stopped coloring and turned to watch. He’d seen this before but somehow it took on new meaning after his talk with Gretchen on the playground.
“Tell me precisely where your head hurts,” his papa asked.
“On the right side, starting at the top of my scalp and extending all the way into my neck and along my shoulder.”
“What color is it?”
“Black,” she immediately answered.
“What shape is it?”
“That’s a hard one. It’s like a flat piece of paper, black construction paper, crumbled on both ends. And another piece of smaller paper along my neck.”
“Is the shape thick or thin? Describe the depth of the shape.”
“About four or five inches thick.”
“Okay, good. We have the location, color and shape. Now let’s see if anything has changed. More deep breathes, please.”
Now Tommy had turned completely around and was sitting on the table, looking first at his momma and seeing the pain in her closed eyes. Then he looked at this papa, whose eyes were pointed toward the ceiling. Tommy turned around to see what his papa might be looking at.
“Now tell me where the pain is,” his papa asked again.
His momma hesitated this time and her head shifted, first to the right, then to the left. “It’s now on my right side from the top of my head to about my right ear.”
Tommy saw the pain in his momma’s eyes go away.
“What color is it?”
“Green, emerald green.”
“A rectangle, but not too thick, maybe an inch or two.”
This time his momma took a few more deeps breaths without any instruction from his papa. Tommy remembered his momma saying something about it wasn’t her first rodeo the last time she did this, but he didn’t know what horses might have to do with a headache. He resolved himself to ask when this was all over, but he knew better than to interrupt when his papa was at work.
“Now how big is it?” papa asked.
“About the size of a baseball. But flat.”
“And the color?”
“Just at the side of my head near my right ear.”
Another pause punctuated by more deep breathes.
His momma didn’t answer. Tommy saw her turn her head back and forth, back and forth.
Finally she said, “The location is gone,” and she leaned over to give his papa a kiss. Tommy turned away, smiling.
“I love when you do that, thank you so much,” she said, snuggling close to him and clasping his hand in hers.
“Heart’s desire.” They kissed again and Tommy colored a girl that Spiderman was talking to, giving her emerald green hair.
Later that evening, Tommy lay on his bed with his papa beside him. From his back he looked up at the ceiling and the underside of a book that his papa was reading, each character claiming a distinct voice as the words spilled out quickly and with a rhythm like a roller coaster running down the tracks, gaining speed.
After the story, his papa and Tommy usually talked about their day. Tommy would share something about school and his papa would share something—often times magical—that happened in his medical practice. When the talking was done and papa suspected that Tommy was drifting off to sleep, his son asked a question that started them into a brand new conversation.
“Is a headache a disease?” Tommy wanted to know.
“In a way, yes, I suppose you could call it a disease. But usually a small one that goes away quickly.”
Tommy looked like he wanted to ask the next question but was having trouble putting it into words.
“Why do you ask son?”
“You know my friend Gretchen? She has a disease.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” his papa said, sliding down next to Tommy. “Did she say what kind of disease?”
He nodded, “She said her disease was a man named Luke and that he had invaded her body.”
“Luke, huh? Does Luke have a last name, Tommy?”
“Yes, Gretchen thinks it’s ‘creamy’.”
“Creamy like ice cream, that kind of creamy?” papa asked.
Tommy nodded again but was having trouble keeping his eyes open.
His father pulled the covers up to his son’s chin and turned off the light. Tommy didn’t stir.
As he lay next to his son, he kept rolling around the name Luke Creamy is his head, the name of a disease that had invaded his son’s friend.
The only logical result he came up with was leukemia.
The next morning at breakfast, after confiding with momma, papa suggested that Tommy invite Gretchen over to their house after school to play and to stay for dinner. Momma would call Gretchen’s mother and make all the arrangements. Tommy said he’d like that very much. And so the arrangements were all set. Papa had an idea.
After a sumptuous dinner of momma’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans, Papa and the two kids settled on the floor in the TV room. Papa introduced the game he wanted them to play—all a part of his idea.
“Let’s play a game of good guys versus bad guys. It’s a game that’s all imagination. You can make up anything you want and you each can play. Okay?” Papa began.
Both kids shrugged after looking at each other.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you. This is a magical, special game. Only you two can see the game and it’ll just be your secret. Sound good?”
This time both kids sat up straight and smiled at each other.
“Now, let’s figure out what to call the good guys.”
“Goodies,” Tommy shouted.
“Avengers!” Gretchen shouted a little louder.
Tommy liked that better and they all agreed to call the good guys the Avengers. Papa was going to ask them what color their uniforms should be, but his idea came more into focus.
Instead he said, “Let’s put the Avengers in red uniforms, okay?”
Both kids nodded enthusiastically.
“Now, what shall we name the bad guys?”
Gretchen and Tommy thought hard, their little faces scrunched up.
Suddenly, Tommy had a good name, “The Meanies.”
“That’s a good one, Tommy,” Gretchen said, patting him on the shoulder. Papa tried but couldn’t suppress his smile.
“Okay, it’s settled, the Avengers versus the Meanies,” papa decreed. “Let’s put the Meanies in white uniforms, okay?”
“Sure, like those bad guys in Star Wars,” Tommy said. “Are the Avengers gonna go to war with the Meanies?”
“Oh, I don’t like war,” Gretchen said.
“Okay, I understand, not many people do, Gretchen,” papa inserted. “Especially, little girls. Let me ask you a question. If you wanted to make sure the good guys, the red Avengers got rid of all the bad guys, the white Meanies, how do you see that happening?” With a wave of his hand, he motioned to Tommy to be quiet a moment.
Gretchen put her hand under her chin and began to think. Her eyes squinted and she looked off into a distance the other two couldn’t see. All was quiet in the den; no sounds at all interrupted the game.
“I don’t know,” she finally said. Tommy let out a big sigh.
“Let me ask it another way. If we wanted to turn all the white guys into red guys, how would that happen?”
“Snowballs,” Gretchen blurted out. “Red snowballs.”
Tommy looked to his papa and he nodded back at the boy.
“We could have a snowball fight. The Avengers could toss snowballs at the Meanies and every time we hit one, they would turn red,” Tommy said, a big smile coming to his face.
“Yes,” Gretchen said, “we could make lots of snowballs and keep them in a red snowball fort and whenever we saw a Meanie coming at us, we could just throw a snowball and turn them all red.”
“That’s pretty cool. I like that,” papa said.
They spent the next half hour playing an imaginary game of Red Snowball. Tommy liked to lob snowballs in the air and see them fall on a Meanie, turning it red. Gretchen favored rolling the red orbs at the white guys, like bowling. They both liked to see themselves building big red snowmen and Tommy could see the giant snowman hurling the red snowballs every which way, an automated robot with two arms rapid-firing snowballs. Gretchen just imagined these big red snowmen blocking the way for the white guys, not letting them pass, like a patrol guard at school, she said.
As his idea began to take shape, papa called an end to the game. Momma served hot cocoa and let the kids out in the snow to make a few real snowballs and throw them at the tree. She overheard them continuing to imagine that all the snowballs were red. Tommy even asked if he could use the ketchup from the cupboard. Momma, with all the sweetness that mommas possess, said no.
Later that evening as momma and papa snuggled in bed, papa whispered, “Now I must talk to her parents.” He fell asleep dreaming in reds and whites.
“We already have a physician,” Gretchen’s father said after a brief introduction by Tommy’s papa. He knew her parents only from polite hellos at school functions.
“I’m not an oncologist, I’m a family doctor,” papa explained.
“Our family doesn’t need a doctor, our daughter needs…a miracle,” Gretchen’s mother said, as her voice trickled to a whisper.
“I believe miracles happen every day. Some we see, others go unnoticed because we are looking elsewhere,” papa said with his best bedside manner. “If you let me work a bit with Gretchen, I won’t promise miracles, but I’ve been developing techniques to approach disease from a mental standpoint.”
“A mental standpoint?” Gretchen’s father shouted. “Our daughter is only seven years old. She doesn’t have a mental standpoint.”
“Perhaps I should have used the term ‘imagination’ in combating disease.”
“Like what, you just imagine it goes away and poof, it’s gone?” the father said, his eyes wide with mock wonder, his head shifting from side to side.
Papa spent ten minutes in melodious tones explaining the power of the mind to heal the body. Gretchen’s parents began to calm and eventually ask questions.
“You really think this approach will work?” her mother asked.
“I’ve seen it work for minor ailments, but I’ve never tried it with cancer, so there can be no guarantees,” papa answered.
“I don’t know if I can put myself through experimentation at this point. If we lose her…I’ll simply die,” her mother said, beginning to sob with big gulps of air.
“I know how much you both love your daughter. I’ve observed that from afar many times. Now you must show your love to a greater extent, beyond perhaps anything you imagined when you decided to have children. I will invite you to see what I’m doing with your daughter. She already possesses the capacity of imagination that I believe can lead to healing.”
“What do you mean? You’ve already began to work with her?” the father asked not so politely.
“No, no. We’ve just played imagination games and my son has been a participant. I can see her ability to visualize is far beyond most children her age, my son included. It was simply an experiment to gauge how she might respond to this type of therapy. I can provide all the medical research documentation to share with your physician. He has already seen most of it I assume. Although he may not see the benefit or interpret the design as I have—I’ve been working with it for years.”
“I’m not sure,” the father said. The mother continued to cry to herself and had lost the gist of the conversation.
“Speak to your oncologist. You have nothing to lose. And everything to gain. You must also know that I have been captivated by your little Gretchen, as has my son. I would do everything in my power to see her well again. And I will keep our work secret, sharing it with no one. I’ll include you in every session and give you weekly updates. All I ask in return is to see her blood work-ups occasionally, to ascertain if we are making progress.” Papa waited for a reply.
Finally, her father said, “Let me see the research.”
All six of them sat around the kitchen table in Tommy’s home. Papa, momma, Gretchen and her parents, and Tommy. Momma had cooked chicken rice casserole with sliced apples and peaches on the side, a wondrous discovery at the grocery store during wintertime. She had apple pie warming in the oven and the smell waffled through the house.
Papa began. “Do both of you know how blood works?” he said, directing the question to the children.
“It’s the red stuff inside your body, right?” Tommy asked.
“It’s like a river, right, that runs through your whole body,” Gretchen chimed in.
“That’s a great way to describe it, darling,” papa said. “And what color is it?”
“And red is the color of…?”
“The good guys!” both kids said at the very same time.
Everyone smiled at their enthusiasm, even Gretchen’s mother.
“It flows into every part of your body, did you know that?” papa continued. “Into the tips of your toes, and your nose. Into each finger and the top of your head. And every little nook and cranny,” here papa began to point—and tickle ever so slightly—as he touched Gretchen on her back, her tummy, her kneecap and her ear. She giggled as little girls do.
“Sometimes,” papa explained, “bad things get in your blood. Like Luke Creamy.”
Her parents both frowned in confusion but did not interrupt.
“And they’re white,” Gretchen said with a slight smile.
“Exactly,” papa exclaimed. “So we have to make all those white Luke Creamys turn to red. Let’s release the red snowballs!”
Snowballs? Her father mouthed but not out load, a look of wide-eyed wonder coming across his face, quickly and unexpectedly like a spring snow squall.
The two kids mimicked throwing snowballs and Tommy laid in the sound effects—phew, phew, phew. The both bounced in their chairs, with eyes closed, and they ducked every so often, like they were avoiding an incoming white snowball from the notorious Mr. Creamy.
“Now, let’s build the fort to keep out all those white guys,” papa shouted. And the kids crouched in their chairs, their hands up now, patting together the make believe shelter. Every so often, Tommy lobbed an unseen snowball at incoming menaces.
Papa let the kids have fun. Then a new idea struck him.
“Okay, now a new tactic to battle the Meanies. I want you to see that great big fort you just built—and don’t worry, you can build a new one. I want you to see it melt and flood in a rush of red water. And wash all the white Meanies away! Now! Melt it! Go!”
At first, the kids couldn’t grasp the image. Then Tommy’s sound effects came into play. Whoosh! Whoosh!
“Look out below,” Tommy bellowed. “The dam has broken!”
Gretchen chimed in with a couple of softer whooshes herself.
“Now, look around,” papa instructed. “Do you see any white Meanies?”
Both kids shifted their heads right and left and shook them back and forth, indicating the white guys had been washed away. Papa began to clap, slowly and rather quietly at first. Then mamma joined in. The clapping became louder as Tommy and Gretchen participated. Everyone was now rah, rahing with loud table thumping and high fiving.
Afterward, as mamma served piping hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream to the kids, papa and Gretchen’s mother and father slipped outside into the crisp, cold night air. They all exhaled to see their foggy breath. Several stars shone, escorting the darker night to come.
“What just happened in there?” her father asked.
“It’s a visualization technique I’ve used in my practice for years,” papa explained. “The patient, Gretchen, sees her body and the built-in defenses it generates, destroying the disease. In leukemia—Luke Creamy in this case—the body produces too many white blood cells. If Gretchen can see her body produce more red cells and they overtake the white ones, maybe we can reverse the progression. That’s the simple answer.”
The look on her mother’s face indicated she did not believe.
“What do we have to lose?” papa said, looking directly into her eyes.
“It might get her hopes up too high,” she replied.
“Hope is exactly what she needs right now. The more, the better,” papa answered back. “Let me work with her. No charge. As you continue your regular treatment. I sincerely believe this can help cure her. And I think she is starting to believe it, too.”
“I’m not sure I do,” her father said.
“All I ask is that you not let her see your skepticism.”
Papa waited for a reply, but none came. He continued, “Look, I’ve spoken to Gretchen’s oncologist, with your permission, of course,” nodding in the direction of her father. “I know her case now. I’ve familiarized myself with the exact problems in her blood and confirmed that with her doctor. If I…if we…can generate more red blood cells to overtake the mutating white cells in her body, we can reverse this. It’s much more complicated than that, but then again, not really. Her body can heal itself; it just needs to get the right instructions from her. More red, less white. In the meantime, you should continue with her treatment. If it was my child, I’d try every possible treatment. Every single one. I’m not advocating doing any less, I’m asking you to do more for her. Can you see that? Can you see the possibility? And even if you can’t, will you trust me? Will you trust me to help heal that darling little girl?”
Both parents breathed in at the same time, looked at each other, then back at papa. They nodded, but with little enthusiasm.
The apple pie a la mode they later ate had little taste to them. Much less than the pie the kids had finished just minutes earlier.
Over the next several months, papa and Gretchen worked together twice a week. Eventually, Tommy felt a little left out and papa assured him that even though he and the young girl were working alone now, Tommy’s help was still needed.
Papa taught Gretchen to summon the good Avengers in their red uniforms every time she though about it. Tommy received the instructions to remind Gretchen every time he thought to do so. Between the two of them, Gretchen increased the warfare of red over white numerous times a day, even though she preferred to still look at the whole affair as a snowball fight.
But her leukemia symptoms did not go away. Instead they increased. She regularly missed a day of school because of her fatigue, missing an entire week in February. In March, just as it looked like spring may burst through the winter, she landed in the hospital to fight a nasty bronchial infection. Papa visited and found her tender to the touch and looking like she’d lost weight. But he wasn’t discouraged.
Papa had received permission to access her blood work reports through her online medical records because her father listed him as a member of her medical team.
On her eight birthday, papa, mamma and Tommy attended a party in her honor at her home. Her parents and grandparents were the only others to attend. Gretchen lay on the couch the entire time, even to open presents and enjoy her cake. Her mother and father looked worse than she did, with fatigue etched all over their faces and eye sockets blackened by the unrelenting disease and fading hope. No light shone through their eyes.
After the party, papa asked mamma to drive Tommy home and then he requested a few minutes alone with Gretchen in her bedroom where she had retired as coffee had been served to the adults. Her parents relented and said yes.
As papa sat on the edge of the bed, he looked deep into the little girl’s eyes. He saw sadness, but he didn’t think she had given up.
“Now is the time, Gretchen,” he began. She raised her chin and looked into his eyes.
“You’ve been too nice. To the Meanies. Now is the time they must be banished.”
She had a worried look and began to breath more quickly.
“I know,” he continued almost in a whisper. “I know you have not wanted to…destroy them. Just beat them back with a few red snowballs. It’s not mean to destroy them. They are the Meanies!” his voicing rising now. “And they are making you feel bad. They must be put to…death, wiped away. They cannot stay any longer. Do you understand?”
She nodded, but looked like she might cry.
“Yes, I know. It’s scary. But you can do this. You can drive the Meanies away! Only you. You have the heart to do it, I know. You’re a very, very strong young lady, even though you may not feel like it right now. You’ll have help. All those snowballs you’ve got stored away in the fort? Can you see them?”
She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. Then she nodded.
“And all those that Tommy made? Can you see them, too?”
“And can you see all the red rivers running through your body? All the good Avenger red rivers of your blood, into every part of your body. Your fingers. Your toes. Your ears. Your head. Your tummy. Your arms. Your legs. Your knees. Your feet. Your hands. Can you see those red rivers, child? Can you?”
“I can see them!” she mustered.
“Now, Gretchen! Now! Release all those snowballs! Release them! Flood the red rivers with all those snowballs! Go, child go! Wipe away those Meanies. They are mean and nasty and they do not belong in your body anymore!”
She was breathing hard now, concentrating all her inner strength.
“More Gretchen! More snowballs. Release them all! Now! Now!” papa was in a feverish stance, kneeling beside the bed, his fists balled tightly, one arm pumping up and down.
“Now, more flood, Gretchen! More flood! Go, go!”
“I will destroy you, you Meanies!” the little girl shouted.
Both her parents were now at her bedroom door. But they didn’t enter. Her mother sobbed silently. Her father’s fists were up against the door and his head sagged between his outreached arms.
“More snowballs! Release the snowballs, Gretchen!” papa shouted one more time. Together they continued to blast away at the Meanies, bringing all the resources the little girl could summon. Finally, she lay back on her pillow, exhausted. Papa unclenched his fists, breathed deeply, and nodded toward the young girl.
“Well done. Very well done,” he said.
Three weeks later, at ten o’clock at night, papa heard the phone ring. He thought it was a little late for a phone call. Only bad things are conveyed this late at night, he thought, as he reached for the phone.
“It’s me,” Gretchen’s father said, his voice at a pitch papa hadn’t heard before. “Have you seen the latest blood work report?”
“No,” papa admitted. “I checked this afternoon but it hadn’t been posted.
“It was just added, ten minutes ago.”
“It’s time again,” the father said. “It’s time…right now! It’s time to start making more snowballs!”
“Wha…?” papa asked.
“Because they’re working. Those snowballs are working. Can you believe it? I think they are.”
The smile burst across papa’s face. “Hallelujah.”
Author’s note: I’ve used the headache technique myself many times over the years within my family. Try it please; it works, especially on stress-related headaches. The visualization technique depicted in this story I first discovered in the writings of Bernie S. Siegel, M.D., beginning with his book Peace, Love & Healing. Now retired from his medical practice and in his late 80s, his landmark work with many aspects of cancer treatment you may see as outside “accepted treatments techniques” and yet he has shown proven results. I hope his work continues; deadly diseases should be attacked with all the abilities within our arsenal.