Our freshmen year of college, Victor and I broke into the abandoned tuberculosis ward formerly known as the Athens Lunatic Asylum. It was a rite of passage. We crossed the Richland Avenue bridge with the same adventurous spirit I imagined Washington felt crossing the Delaware. On the other side, at the top of the steep hill, we found unmarked graves, each small headstone having only the processing number of deceased patients. Names and histories and faces, long forgotten. We crawled beneath chainlink fence to enter the compound.
The last time I heard Victor’s voice was a few weeks before he died. He left me a surprise voicemail where, confused, he told me about a minor league baseball game. We were going to go see the Akron RubberDucks next week, he said. Victor was excited. Seemed to have no idea the game had happened two years prior. I never returned the call. Didn’t know what I’d say, and assumed I’d have another chance.
Victor possessed a gregarious spirit. We told each other everything. Our sophomore year, he confided in me that he had been born with an abnormally long ballsack. When we were in a public restroom, he laughed and said the water level of the toilet was particularly high. My balls touch the water, he said, and laughed endlessly, full of joy at this unexpected revelation. Later that year, his girlfriend Julie left for Brazil on a study abroad program. In response, Victor had me shave his head in tonsure to approximate the appearance of a medieval friar, the hair removed from the crown in a large circle, leaving only a surrounding fringe. It was a joke, he explained, and laughed. Julie would hate it. As I cut, I noticed a single gray patch of hair on the top of his head. I got struck by lightning as a kid, he told me.
We kept in touch occasionally after college. Would send each other texts, and each year would write some sort of brief update to let the other know the vague shape our lives had taken. He was given the diagnosis a few years post-graduation, after he and Julie had broken up. The tumor had lain dormant all these years, forming gradually in Victor’s meninges, the cranial nerves, the pituitary, the pineal. This was, I learned later, due to errors in his DNA. Cells grew and divided at multiplied rates. Took over everything like a parasite. Victor gained weight after the first round of chemo. Most of his hair fell out until he decided to shave the rest off and grow a patchy beard. He was almost unrecognizable. Then some good news: he had beaten the cancer. Remission. The word had a sting in the tail, but I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know these sorts of things came back.
That night in the tuberculosis ward, we found in the basement what looked like some kind of small prison for the most difficult of patients—rusty white bars and individual gray cells. The imagination needs only a few scant details to become carried away. Take a picture, Victor said, and went inside one of the cages, the door closing behind him with a rusty creak. There was something in his smile that I would notice much later—a lightness of existence, as though his soul were just barely moored to his body, wanted to pull free before its time. I was unaware then of death’s insidious form, its surprising turns. When my flash went off, we heard something outside. The cops, Victor said, still in the cage, still alive, crouched down low. We turned our flashlights off and waited there in the dark and the quiet to see what might come next—but they passed us by, oblivious.
Austin Ross’s fiction and non-fiction has been published in various journals, magazines, newspapers, and anthologies, including Hobart, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. He lives near Washington, D.C. with his wife and son. You can follow him on Twitter @AustinTRoss, or go to austinrossauthor.com for more.