Runner Up 2012 - 'Compulsion' by Natalie Grigson

02/19/16 05:44:17PM
112 posts

The words roll across the bottom of the screen, faster than most people can think, let alone read. Two old people walk along the top, the part that you’re actually supposed to watch, ignoring what’s going on just below their feet. That’s the part I’m watching: the words.

“May cause skin rash, itching, hives, swelling of the face, lips or tongue…

“May cause confusion, flu-like fever, chills, cough, or muscle and joint aches…”

The couple is still frolicking like two brain-zapped cows, happily above the white letters. As the commercial comes to an end, the words spin out, faster and faster, out of control.

“May cause tremors, trouble sleeping, vomiting, heart attack, suicidal thoughts or mood changes…”

And then the commercial ends with the big logo, and the couple’s lips touch, just for a moment, before the screen fades back into the show: Saturday morning cartoons.

I quickly check my skin—no rash, or hives, although my ear is beginning to itch. I don’t recall having had any problems sleeping lately; nor do I remember recently vomiting, having any flu-like symptoms, or any actual seizures (I don’t count my pretend seizures to scare Mom, because those are just for fun.) All and all, I think I am okay. In fact, I’m feeling pretty good as I settle back into our big, red couch, and watch as, once again, Jerry escapes Tom’s grasp.

I started the pills when I was five. Mom’s a physiatrist, so they’re always cheap, which she says is good, because right now we are “not doing so well.” I don’t know what she means, though. Like I said, I feel pretty good.

As Tom and Jerry race around and around in the on-screen kitchen, which Mom says is always “unrealistically clean,” I start to realize that I am having a seizure—a real seizure. I jump off of the couch, just as Mom is coming in through the front door, and I start drooling, my tongue hanging out (undoubtedly swollen) over my cheek (which must be covered in hives), and I am flopping around on the floor next to the coffee table like a fish.

“Matt, what are you doing.” It’s not a question.

“I’m having a seizure, Mom! And I’m covered in hives! I’m itchy all over! And my tongue is too big!”

She glances once at the television, sighs as she takes in the unrealistically clean kitchen, and walks over to sit down on the coffee table. She watches me like a flopping fish.

“You’re not having a seizure. If you were having a seizure, you wouldn’t be able to tell me you were having a seizure, else you’d have swallowed your tongue—which, by the way, does not look swollen. You were watching television again, weren’t you?”

I stop thrashing around to show her I am listening. Also, I’ve just smacked my knee on the leg of the table, and I’ve got that pins and needles feeling, so thrashing isn’t very fun anymore. I nod my head, and with that look she’s giving me, all I want to do is my rituals.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…

“Matt, I thought I told you not to watch live television anymore. That’s why I’ve got all those shows recorded for you. The commercials are just going to worry you unnecessarily and…”

50, 51, 52, 53…

“…Honestly, the medications are there to help with this kind of compulsive behavior; if you pay attention to those kinds of commercials, you’re going to wind up like Uncle Rodney.”

99, 100, 101…

I almost get to two-hundred before I realize Mom isn’t talking anymore. She’s not looking at me like a flopping fish anymore, either. I guess, if anything, she’s looking at me like a dead fish.

“Are you counting? Or are you naming things?”

“Counting,” I mumble, struggling to stop the flow of numbers in my head. At least I hadn’t been naming things. When I get into naming, sometimes she can’t bring me back to “the present moment” (her words, not mine) for a long time. We’ve got a lot of things, and the way I see it, each of those things has at least three names. Like the clock in the living room—that’s “clock” for sure, but also, round, and ticking, and sometimes Howard. The couch is obviously “couch,” but sometimes it’s fluffy, red, comfortable, dirty, and once, after Lady got into some old cat food, Mom named it “shitty.”

“Matt!” Mom is standing way above me with her hands on her hips. She’d gotten up at some point and has turned into a giant, or maybe it just looks that way, because I’m lying on the floor still and she is wearing those big, goofy boots. Anyway, she looks upset.

“Matt, I’m upset.”


“I don’t want you watching anymore live television. The pills you’re on are supposed to help you, and they are helping you; but you’ve got to put in some effort too, you know.” She sighs like it’s a whole long sentence, and tells me to stay put.

Her boots sound like horse hooves as she walks into our not-so-clean kitchen. It’s hard for me to go in there, because there’s a lot of wood in the kitchen and I have to knock on all of the cabinets seventeen times, which makes Mom say things like “God, kill me now!” It is also where Dad died five years ago, which always makes me wonder if he didn’t like the kitchen much either.

She comes back holding a glass of something red in one hand, a handful of pills like candy in the other, and a DVD is tucked under her arm. I can’t tell you what half the pills are called, or the type of juice; but the DVD is Looney Toons classics. Always.

“Now you be good. If you need me, I’ll be in my office,” she sets the little mountain down next to my juice on the table. As she puts the DVD in, pills slide down from the pile like the tiniest avalanche.

Pills, medicine, tablets, gel-coated tablets, hard tablets, round tablets, bitter, blue, red, purple, mountain, avalanche, snow storm…

By the time I’ve made it to dewdrops (I don’t know why), Mom is gone and I can hear her walking up the stairs. She doesn’t even watch to make sure I take them anymore. When she opens the door to her office, I hear her shout something, and then I can hear Lady running downstairs.

“Matthew James! I told you not to leave the door to my office open! The damn dog was locked in there and got into…”

Lady, golden retriever, fluffy, soft…

Lady walks over to where I am still sitting on the floor, my back to the couch, and covers me in warm dog kisses.

Stinky, slimy, sticky…

1, 2, 3…

“Hello, sticky,” I say. Lady sniffs around on the table for a minute and decides there’s nothing there she’s interested in, so she settles herself onto the couch to watch cartoons.

When I’m sure Lady is good and comfortable and won’t rat me out, and I can no longer hear Mom moving around upstairs, and I am double-double sure that the TV is loud enough to block out any noise that I might make, I scoop up all the pills in a double handful, and walk into the bathroom. The toilet water turns purple with their mixture of colors, and for just a second after I’ve flushed, I’m scared that they won’t go down. The water starts rising up angrily, and it’s got the look of water that just might keep rising—purple, pill-stained water, with little tablets floating around like life boats, will flood the bathroom, the downstairs, the whole house, at any moment! But then I close my eyes and count to thirty, and when I open them, the pills are gone; the water is clear once again.

“Jeez Louise!” I breathe out, as I wipe the imaginary sweat off my forehead. Mom does this sometimes, because she said Dad used to do it. I don’t remember though.
When I get back into the living room, Lady has the plastic cup stuck over her snout, but she doesn’t seem to mind; she is just trying to lick what is left of the juice out of the bottom of the cup. I tell her she is being compulsive, because Mom says that a lot and I pull the cup off of her face. It makes a sound like a toilet plunger.

“You ready, Lady?” She tells me yes by wagging her tail.

I tell her I’m ready by getting her leash, and thirty five steps later in my room, I pull the overnight bag out of my closet. We could go out the front door, of course; but that wouldn’t be nearly as exciting.

So we crawl out the window.

After one cab, twenty-eight dollars, fifty paces, and three granola bars because I’m nervous, Lady and I are at the train station. I’ve never been to the train station before, and I’m starting to get really, really nervous—too nervous for more granola bars—and my palms are making Lady’s leather leash turn black.

Lady, woman, old, wise, wrinkly, alone, smiling…

The woman passes, only to be replaced by more things, with even more names.

Windows, tickets, counters, flat, plastic, black, white, gray, papers…

I close my eyes and start to count until I can feel my breathing slow down. It takes 400, but when I open my eyes, I feel a lot better.

And then I realize Lady is gone. I look around, but I don’t see her anywhere, and nobody is wearing that “I’ve just seen a loose dog” face. So I count, and I rock, and I suck on my Looney Toons watch, which was a gift from Dad’s brother, who is supposed to meet us here, and the world seems to melt away.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…

I can hear somebody walking toward me, their steps sound funny with my eyes closed, like it is a creature with too many legs; or a spider with the right number of legs, but with a heavy limp.

30, 31, 32, 33, 34…


I’m starting to wonder if maybe the purple pill really will kill me, even though I haven’t taken any today, and then everybody at the station will laugh and Lady will never get dinner, and how many dinners would she have to miss before she died in the station like me?

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…


Stinky, slimy, sticky…

I open my eyes and Lady is drooling all over my bag, looking for the granola bars.

“Jeez Louise,” my uncle says as he pulls me up from the floor. I hadn’t realized I’d sat down. In something I hope is water.

He scoops up my bag and he guides me through the train station, avoiding all the right cracks, stepping on the blue colored tiles, and mouthing the numbers of each stop in between telling me about his house.

It’s yellow.


It’s got blue shutters.


And all of the furniture has its own name.

I tell uncle that he is being compulsive, but he doesn’t hear me, because he is too busy being compulsive. He tells me all about my Mom who he calls a “crazy bitch,” and about my Dad, who he always looked up to. When we get onto train number 26, I let out a breath, close my eyes, and say a silent goodbye to our old television, the squishy red couch, sometimes Howard, and that one spot in the kitchen where the sun shines in.

updated by @americymru: 02/19/16 06:05:14PM