Brian Koukol


After the operation, he found them in his bedroom closet, draped across the untouched baseball mitt his dad had recently given him for his eighth birthday. They were white, wet, and thick as tentacles—conjured duplicates of the ones the surgeon had stretched to keep him walking.

"They're just tendons, Henry," his mom said when he showed her. "I wouldn't worry about it."

Two years later, when his wasting muscles had bound him to a wheelchair for good, the tendons integrated themselves into a freshly materialized pair of legs—better, stronger versions of his own. He got to keep the old, useless ones.

"We all knew this day would come," his dad said, patting Henry on the head. Shortly thereafter, he moved out.

At twelve, Henry's occupational therapist mounted a complicated architecture of weights and counterweights to his wheelchair. They helped him move his arms, copies of which greeted him in the closet when he got home.

By the time his scoliosis got so bad that a spinal fusion was warranted, the stack of limbs had desiccated and discolored, turning his closet into a low-rent sarcophagus. After the surgery, however, everything changed. A pristine pelvis and vertebral column—free of both the osteoporosis and anchored metal rods that now riddled his body— manifested to accept the mummified legs. Nerve damage brought a waist, posterior ribs, and accompanying skin. Five pints of donated blood pinked and plumped what was clearly developing into some sort of a creature.

Henry tried college, but dropped out when he could no longer use a pen. That's when the creature started scribbling on the closet walls—doodles at first, but soon paragraphs of gibberish in cursive. For every ability Henry lost, the creature gained the corresponding brain tissue that he no longer needed.

At twenty-four, Henry had a routine pulmonary function test. Carbon dioxide was building up in his blood and something needed to be done about it. That something was noninvasive mechanical ventilation. His mom wiped away his tears, because he couldn't do it himself. His dad sent him a postcard from Machu Picchu.

Sobs from behind his mom's bedroom door kept Henry awake through most of his first night on the ventilator. The next morning, he discovered her in the closet, misting the lungs and diaphragm that had sprouted from the creature's spine with the spray bottle she used on her African violets. She didn't cry so much after that.

It got harder for Henry to swallow and the creature grew a throat. With his gastronomy tube came a stomach for it—at least according to his mom. His view was blocked by a chest grown when he'd added trunk support to his wheelchair, but she insisted she could feel its stomach gurgle. She'd taken to sitting on a stack of boardgames beside it throughout the day, trying to decipher its scrawl.

Not long thereafter, she started feeding it rice cereal through the hole at the top of its throat. Then came the diapers.

Henry's fused spine began to deteriorate, spreading the nerve damage into his skull. When his hearing worsened, his mom started singing the creature lullabies. Then she moved it out of the closet. And started calling it Hank.

Hank spent his time in the living room recliner, listening to audiobooks of Faulkner and Pynchon and reading The New Yorker in braille. Meanwhile, Henry forgot the difference between "there," "their," and "they're."

Atrophied muscles made it difficult for Henry to open his jaw, so Hank grew one himself. Three dental extractions due to decay brought Hank some teeth, along with a proper version of Henry's hypertrophied tongue. And just like that, he could eat solid food.

Henry got nutrition through the tube in his stomach now, so his mom gave Hank his old spot at the table. Hank loved Henry's mom's lasagna—even after Henry got skin cancer on his nose and Hank gained a sense of smell. He liked it so much that he wrote a soliloquy about it in Esperanto. Henry couldn't remember what a soliloquy was. Or Esperanto.

Muscle weakening left Henry prone to eyestrain. After a particularly acute flareup, he got special glasses and Hank got the gift of sight. That's when Hank started watching Romanian New Wave movies and developed an appreciation for the offshoot movements of Cubism.

On Henry's thirtieth birthday, his dad sent Hank a postcard from Prague, ending it with: "wish you were here." Two weeks later, Henry caught a cold and almost died from pneumonia, so they gave him a tracheostomy. After that, he couldn't talk anymore and Hank would only shut up about the manifesting repercussions of neoliberalism long enough to belt out "Di Quella Pira" from Il Trovatore. But Hank wasn't just smart. He was charming as well, like Henry had been once.

When sustained ventricular tachycardia came knocking, Henry's cardiologist implanted him with an automatic defibrillator. Upon his return from the hospital, he found Hank's recliner empty and Hank in the backyard, playing catch with his old, dusty baseball mitt.

Standing opposite him was Henry's dad, who had moved back in.

The old man suggested they all go for a walk together, so Henry plodded toward the door. He needed to forget about his infirmities, if even for a little while.

"Not you, bud," his dad said. "We're going into the hills. Your chair can't handle it."

They couldn't leave Henry home alone, so they called the home health agency. Then the three of them—his mom, his dad, and Hank—went on their hike. As a family. The way his parents had always wanted.

When Henry died, his mom and dad and Hank headed to the Greek Isles to scatter his ashes and parlay the trip into an extended vacation. As all that remained of Henry sank into the glassy Ionian Sea, Hank massaged the backs of his feet. His tendons were killing him.


Brian Koukol, raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, now makes his home among the salt breezes and open spaces of California's Central Coast. A lifelong battle with muscular dystrophy has informed the majority of his work, which is written with the aid of voice recognition software. His words have appeared in The Delmarva Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Phantaxis Magazine. Visit his author website: