The title of Elizabeth Colen, Carol Guess, and Kelly Magee’s collaborative story collection, Your Sick, may at first seem like a grammatical error. In fact, a Goodreads user on the collection’s page asks, “Is the title intended to be ungrammatical? Are we supposed to read it as ‘You’re Sick?’” The confusion inherent in this question, “are we supposed to read it” this way, encapsulates the strange, feverish experience of reading Your Sick. These eighteen stories, mostly flash length, explore illnesses real and imagined, in a world that is kind of like ours only not. Babies grow facial hair and build societies in the woods on the outskirts of town. Teenage girls have storms brewing inside their emaciated bodies. Mail is contaminated with yellow fever.
The sickness that permeates these pages bleeds through the boundaries that separate readers from characters, facts from fiction. You are indicted, contaminated as soon as you open the cover.
The first story “Forgetting Wendy” starts “You left our baby on the bus,” as the unnamed narrator details the many challenges of living with a partner who has what appears to be selective amnesia. Forgetting is a recurring theme in several stories. “Amnesiac Lung” tells of women who forget for long periods of time, sometimes years, that suddenly come to in the middle of lives that they don’t remember starting. In “Your Sick” the collection’s title story, the narrator contracts a disease from her former lover that causes her to not only forget her name, but also her identity. She takes on the characteristics of her lovers, passing on the disease until they “were all shifting places.”
The second piece, “Zero Fever,” introduces the reader to the titular disease that turns children into parrots, as well as Dr. Zulaski, who appears throughout the collection, each time with a different specialty. In “Zero Fever,” he is whispered about among parents with stricken children, and described as having “a feline way of moving, thick hands, eyes framed by golden eyebrows and bushy hair.” In “X-Ray Pine,” he’s a surgeon with the same “thick hands and a Cheshire grin, eyes framed by golden eyebrows and bushy hair,” removing a tree from the narrator Xavier’s lungs. In “Varda,” he’s a couple’s therapist, taking notes as the narrator tries to explain her partner Emily’s recent insistence that she is an alien. Like the narrator of “Your Sick,” Dr. Zulaski’s identity morphs throughout the collection, and while he is always a doctor, he changes, like the x-rays in “X-Ray Pine” that “tell stories based on the stories we tell them.” Many of the characters in Your Sick experience shifts in identity, whether it’s physical or psychological; sometimes the shift is the result of their sickness, like the parrot children in “Zero Fever,” and sometimes it’s the sickness itself.
From the beginning of “L,” the longest story in Your Sick, the reader knows that the narrator Lolita Lux has a history of changing her identity. She explains that by the seventh grade she’d taken another name “because by [then] kids knew that there was something wrong with Lolita.” And while she means her name, as the piece progresses, it becomes clear that there is something wrong with Lolita. After surviving a bus crash, she takes a dead man’s dog and her dead doppelganger’s bag and assumes her identity, even though she knows that it would be impossible to maintain it:
Dead is dead. I had to decide. I could say that I’d broken into Masie’s apartment in a state of shock, which was true. Or I could say I thought the dog was hers, and went looking for her because I’d found her bag among the wreckage. I could say anything at this point, less than 24 hours after the crash. But time was passing. At some point, shock would turn into lying. My excuses wouldn’t fly. And the more people involved in Masie’s life, the more likely I’d get caught.
When she does get caught, the reader is confronted with yet another definition of sick— perverse, deranged, crazy. This definition lurks in every story in Colen, Guess, and Magee’s collection, and infects readers as they grapple with their own kinds of sickness.
Your Sick, by Elizabeth Colen, Carol Guess, and Kelly Magee. Atlanta, Georgia: Jellyfish Highway Press, February 2016. 178 pages. $15.00, paper.
Meghan Phillips lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she works at a public library and reads fiction submissions for Third Point Press. She reviews nonfiction books for Hippocampus Magazine. Her flash fiction has appeared in Maudlin House, Chicago Literati, and Corium Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @mcarphil.