Ray Winkel donated his waist-length hair to Locks of Love. As a rock star, it was his signature look. Every day, he did 3,000 crunches to keep that tight stomach. Venom, his hard rock head-banging band, was on the verge of a breakthrough. That is, until he got the diagnosis. Brain tumor. He decided to shave his head before the surgery.

The doctors told him his tumor was nearly inoperable, but they would try some experimental procedure. Ray felt someone out there in the world would be able to help him beat this thing. He’d never faced a situation that he couldn’t win. When people told Ray he didn’t have the talent to be a lead singer, he showed them, taking private lessons, playing leads over and over on his guitar until his fingers bled. Practicing to near-perfection.

Venom was hitting the charts, and Ray Winkel was the one taking them there. Stepping out of the posh salon in New York City, he smoothed his bald head. How strange it felt in the breeze.

“Ray, can you tell me why you’ve shaved your head?” asked the reporter from Channel 6 News. Someone from the salon must have called; Ray was a deer in the headlights. Why would anyone care that he cut his hair?

“Well, mate, I wanted to make a donation to Locks of Love.” Ray was shocked; he’d spoken as if he were Australian when he was a guy from Wisconsin living in the Bronx. Why would he do that? He felt he should talk normally after the next question but found himself continuing on the thread he had started.

“Ray, where are you from originally?”

“Where would you think, mate?” Ray didn’t know any more Australian, only what he learned watching Crocodile Dundee on television. Flagging down a cab, he ran away from the reporter.

Ray was facing some serious surgery, cutting a hole in his skull; what could go wrong? Oh, just a chance of losing his speech, or the ability to walk, maybe memories of his childhood (not of Australia); the risks were endless. He remembered the girl on his school bus growing up. She had tumors and they would take one out, or maybe reduce the size every so often and she kept getting worse. She had seizures and no balance in her gait and soon the bus driver was trying to get Sadie up the steps of the bus with a walker. His heart ached for her. Now he was looking at the same thing. Was it something in the soil? Perhaps all the chemicals they were putting into the rivers and fields? Insecticide, herbicide, suicide.

“Hey, Ray.” Barney, the bass player met him on his stoop. “Nice dome.” He laid his hand on Ray’s head. Ray pushed him off; he wasn’t ready to joke about this yet.

“Stop. I have a headache. I just need to go lie down.” Australian accent again.

“Why are you talking like that?” Ray shook his head.

“I don’t know. When I got the hair cut off, I started to talk like this.”

“Well, it’s creepy. It doesn’t even sound like you.”

“Can’t help it.”

“Go lay down. I’ll meet you tonight at the stadium. This will be the last concert for a while; are you okay?” Ray nodded his head yes, but he had such a splitting headache he wanted to vomit.

“I’ll catch you tonight.” Ray punched the elevator button to the sixth floor. Drawing the curtains to shut out the light, all he wanted to do was sleep.

When his eyes opened, the headache was gone. Thank God for small miracles. Tonight, Venom was the back up for the headliner band. They were gaining momentum with their hot new songs, most of them written by Ray. This tumor couldn’t have come at a worse time, not that there was ever a good time to have one. He was only 29 years old and in the prime of his young life.

Ray flagged down the taxi, his Australian accent gone; he was feeling like his old self.

The stagehand let him through the back door of the stadium. He found his way to the front stage, his guitar fully tuned.

“Ray, she’s all ready for you.” Barney wasn’t shocked to see him, but the rest of the band was. Their mouths hung open. Ray had gone from an Afghan hound to a Mexican hairless chihuahua. Barney tossed a fedora to him, and he quickly put it on. Ray didn’t feel so naked now.

“Fresh from New York City, a rising phenomenon, Venom!” The guys ran out on the stage going into the head banging cymbal crashing “Yo’ Mama,” one of their favorites. The crowd was up on their feet; the hundreds of nightclubs Venom had played in the last few years made the music familiar to them. Ray would quit singing on the chorus and hold the microphone out to the crowd who kept the song going. It was an amazing night.

On the last number, he forgot the words and his Australian accent came back. Ray did the only thing he could think of; he held out the microphone and the crowd finished the song.

“Good night, everyone,” he said in his Australian accent. The crowd roared. Barney walked him off telling the guys to make sure the equipment got in the van.

“We’re going to the hospital, Ray.” Ray didn’t fight his friend; he went along mutely. The surgery wasn’t scheduled until a day later, but seeing as how Ray wasn’t himself anymore, they pushed him up. He was sitting in the room waiting for the surgical team to come and get him. Barney was allowed to sit with him; Ray had no one else, no one special. That was sad, but it also was a good thing because there was no one to disappoint when he wasn’t the person he used to be. Barney kept up his endless chatter; he was a good bloke if Ray ever saw one. The anesthesiologist came in.

“Hello, Ray. I’m here to give you a little something to take the edge off.”

“That’s a wonderful idea.” Ray watched the magic elixir being pumped into his IV port.

“This is the good stuff. So where from down under are you from?” Barney shook his head no. Instantly, Ray felt calm and went with the flow. There was nothing he could do anymore; his life was in the hands of a surgeon he’d only met once. Ray wondered if Sadie Wicker felt the same way when she went in for her brain surgeries?


The sensation of sound. Ray could hear conversations. Heart rate, pulse; the machine beeped. He was alive. Ray tried to open his eyes; he felt terrible trying to come out from under, but he could feel pain, a sore throat, a headache. He moaned.

“Ray? You are in recovery. We are going to let the anesthetic wear off and we’ll take you to your room; your sister is here. Just rest easy and let your body do the work of getting rid of the drugs in your system.”

Ray mumbled something; he had no idea what he said, but inside, he was conscious that his mind was there, but some things were missing. What happened in surgery?

Ray was moved to a hospital room; water on a sponge for now, they swabbed his mouth. His left side didn’t move while his mouth dribbled saliva.

“What the hell is wrong with me,” he said as if he had a mouth full of slush.

“Mr. Winkel, the doctor will be in to talk with you in a second.” The nurse avoided looking at him.

A stroke. 29 years old and he suffered a stroke on the table. There would be physical therapy, speech therapy; given his age he was likely to come back almost a hundred percent they hoped, and good news: the brain tumor was gone!

The brain tumor was gone, but they’d left behind a ravaged body. The doctor felt getting the tumor out was more important than the damage it created. The patient was young; he would adapt. Ray was in great physical shape going into this; he was disciplined and he could get most of it back with a lot of work.

Ray was moved to a nursing home where he received physical therapy and speech therapy. He slowly regained the use of his tongue and his leg. The arm, though, was nowhere as good.

He called his sister, who’d gone back to Wisconsin. Ray couldn’t live on his own yet. They agreed to transfer him to Wisconsin.

“You sound better today.” Maggie hadn’t seen him since the surgery when she spent a week with him in the hospital. He was grateful for her help. Maggie was a social worker in the nursing home, the one where Sadie Wicker lived. She pulled some strings and got him into the place, temporarily.

He saw her with an adult walker flailing down the halls of the Mount Olive Care Center, Sadie didn’t recognize him, but he recognized her. Sadie’s parents walked behind her. They came to help feed her every day, bringing two little dogs with them.

“Maggie, how is Sadie Wicker?” Maggie was quiet.

“There’s no change; she has another surgery scheduled.” Ray knew his sister shouldn’t tell him because of HIPAA laws. Sadie was a survivor; she’d beaten all the odds.

As usual after a stroke, Ray was experiencing depression. Eventually, he would get all his parts moving and get back to his apartment, they assured him.

He walked unaided down the length of the hall. With great difficulty, he made it look flawless. The damn arm wasn’t there yet no matter how much he squeezed the handspring. At least his tongue was working better, and he could walk. Ray needed to be grateful for the small things in his life right now, but he wanted his guitar hand back.

The band picked up a new member. Ricky was “just filling in” until Ray got better. Without his arm, there would be no guitar playing, and his vocal cords weren’t the same. He hated that surgeon more and more each day he struggled.

Barney was the only constant person in his life other than Maggie. He came every few weeks to Wisconsin and encouraged his friend to go for a walk, or to play video games one-handed. He even played against him that way. Yes, Barney was a true friend.

When Ray was sprung from the nursing home. Barney stocked his apartment with TV dinners and easy open packages. If it was too tough to open, he put it in a plastic container labeling the contents. Barney drove Ray home, all the way from Wisconsin.

“You must have been a mother in your former life,” Ray told his friend. He laughed taking the lasagna out of the oven, eating his first meal at home with his friend. Barney set out the medications, making sure Ray took them before he left.

“Barney, you are a true friend.” Ray started to cry.

“Hey, man. This is only baby steps on your road to recovery. It will get better; you just have to keep fighting. You are far beyond where you were a couple of months ago. Don’t give up now.”

“I’m so tired, Barney.” Barney patted him on the back and told him he understood, but he didn’t, not really. No one knows what it’s like being trapped in a body where nothing worked. It was like being buried alive. Barney left.

He was alone.

Ray felt it for the first time in months. He had not had to depend on himself since the surgery and had no time to think without someone just outside the door at his beck and call. It felt strange, and a bit scary.

Ray gave up trying to put on the pajama shirt. He would sleep in his T-shirt; at least the elastic pants were easy enough. He tried to do a few crunches. It was going to be a while before he was back to the thousands he used to do. But he was on the road to recovery. Barney was right.

So why didn’t he feel good?

Ray was frustrated, thinking more and more about Sadie Wicker and how she must feel. God, he only had one tumor, and her head sprouted them like bean seedlings. He called his sister.

“Maggie, it’s me.”

“Ray! You sound great. How does it feel to be back in your apartment?”

“Scary. I don’t have anyone here.” Maggie was silent. He knew she was trying to think of something positive to say.

“Ray, you’ve come a long way; you did that with help, but now they feel you are strong enough to keep going on your own. Look where you’ve gotten with your music. You did that. Everything you do is Ray worthy! You are an amazing brother.” Ray felt a tear roll down his cheek. His sister knew just the right thing to say to him tonight. They talked about many things, their childhoods and the stupid things they’d done, their parents, now gone. Maggie was laughing hard when Ray asked her a sobering question.

“Maggie, what about Sadie Wicker? How did she come out on the last surgery?”

“Oh Ray, I’m so sorry. She didn’t make it. It was a blessing in a way. That poor girl struggled since junior high with surgery after surgery. It was a terrible illness.” Ray hung up, wishing he hadn’t asked.


“The X-rays have turned up something that looks suspicious,” his doctor told him. Ray was numb.

“You told me this was done.”

“Sorry Ray, we got one out. This appears to be another one. What you have is called tuberous sclerosis. Your body makes these tumors. If they appear in non-vital areas, we can remove them.”

“Why didn’t you know this before?”

“Until it shows up, we treat a tumor as a one-time event. The MRI picked up on this new one, and unfortunately, there are other tumors in nonvital parts of your body. We aren’t going to worry about those, and we’ll watch the one in your brain. That is the immediate concern.”

He’d fought his way this far only to find out that he was going to fight this bastard disease until he died, just like Sadie Wicker.

Ray remembered being a year younger than her when the other kids were picking on her, like Sadie needed more to deal with. He felt sorry for her and gave her a plastic diamond ring he’d gotten in a cereal box; she assumed they were engaged. Ray couldn’t tell her any different at the time. Now he was grateful for being nice to her back then. He wondered if she remembered the ring after the next tumor was taken out. Probably not.

Ray took the TV dinner from the microwave. He tried tearing open the top, but that weak arm hung there taunting him, and there was no way to use his teeth; the tray was too hot and he’d burn his mouth.

The TV dinner went flying across the room along with everything else in the kitchen. Ray was in a fit of rage. There was no getting his band back, his life back. He had no one but Barney, who wasn’t coming to visit as much, since the band got busier despite him being gone. Barney asked if they could use his songs. He told them they could for royalties, so he was making a little money. He had applied for Social Security disability, and the bastards turned him down. They were going to make him go to court to get it. He would have to move back to the Midwest.

Maybe he could live with his sister? The thought of that made him crazy. He’d only had a few years on his own. This was so unfair.

He made his way to the bedroom, pulling open the nightstand. The Kahr Arms P380, a tiny plastic gun nestled in a towel he had wrapped it in. He used it for home defense, but never had a reason to pull it out, until now. Such a small lightweight gun. Less than half a pound, the salesman told him.

Ray sat on his bed and then changed his mind. He didn’t want anyone to have to clean up his mess. Instead, he ran a bath. He settled down into the warm water thinking there should be some ceremony to this.

Ray said the Lord’s Prayer. He’d said it since he was a child. He got halfway through it but couldn’t remember the next line.

“Come on!” he forced himself back to the beginning. He got midway through the prayer. Again, the words were gone, just like God was gone and Sadie Wicker was gone.

“Screw it.” Ray pointed the gun to his head and said “amen” before he pulled the trigger.