I lay on the cold leather of the MRI table looking up at a palm tree poster taped to a white ceiling. My mom waits in the adjoining room where she stands with her arms crossed looking at me, a single line of worry imprinting her forehead. Will, the technician, locks my head into the equipment to keep me still while he photographs my brain. I watch his spindling blue veins glow under his fair skin.

I am here because of severe eye pain, because I am a student who cannot study. I cannot look at a computer screen or read a book. My vision blurs, pressure builds behind my right eye, I throw-up. This is regular. After Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, I didn’t say anything for two months. It will go away, I kept telling myself. Until my mom found me cross-legged next to the toilet, mumbling lines from Leaves of Grass, my bare feet on our speckled linoleum, and my hair falling against our matted green bath rug.

Will takes my arm, “Erin, I’m just going to clean the area with a little alcohol.”

The night before my MRI, my mom and I watched a Discovery special on feral dogs in Australia. We held each other’s hands and were quiet, our feet, the same length, stuck out from the fraying quilt wadded across our legs. Neither of us felt like talking or changing the channel. That night I dreamt of wild dogs. Dogs with syringes for teeth, piercing my veins to test and retest my vitals. I dreamt of running, walls closing in, and trying to escape through a trapdoor in a cloudless sky.

“Just do what you need to, but you don’t have to walk me through it. I have a problem with needles,” I say.

“Okay, we just need to find the vein.”

“Okay, but please you really don’t need to tell me anything. It would be better if you didn’t.”

Will squirms uncomfortably as he holds my arm, shifting his weight to his left hip. “Okay, I just need to tell you this. I need to tell you one thing.”

“Okay.” I have no idea what could be so pressing.

“What we’re using today is a pediatric size needle. See, it’s not so thick,” he says tapping the needle with his ring finger. I shudder and look away. “We’re going to inject you with a water based dye that will highlight certain brain activity. If you have any reactions to it, they will most likely happen within the first few seconds of injection.”

He ties a band around my arm to help my vein protrude and I tighten my eyes thinking of his own whispery blue veins.

“We’re just checking for the vein.”

“Please, the more you talk about it the worse it is.”

“Am I correct, you don’t want to know that I’m about to put the needle in?”


Will slides me into the MRI nauseated. I keep my eyes open for a moment, my body tightening the further the machine moves me into its narrow tunnel. Pressure deepens behind my right eye and I want to throw up.

“You okay in there?” Will asks through a microphone.

“Yes.” No.

“We’re going to start the first cycle.”

The tunnel that encloses me shakes, echoing like something smashed into it. Dogs?

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. I recite Rugyard Kipling’s If six times. Then the Desiderata: Go placidly amid the noise and the haste. Then Hamlet’s To Be or Not to Be: The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to.

I recite when I am nervous, when I feel like a situation could swallow me. I recite poetry before giving speeches in class, before job interviews, during my mom’s treatments. Screeching and drilling surround me. I am in for 45 minutes. After the first few cycles I get used to the pattern of sounds: helicopter blades whipping closer, golf clubs swung against car doors, jackhammers chiseling pavement. If you can fill the unforgiving minute.

This is not happening to my brain. To my mother’s breasts. To our bodies. If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew. I think of our feet poking out from the quilt, of the warmth and softness of my mom’s hand that had become rough and flaky with treatment. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Maybe they have the wrong people. Maybe these aren’t our bodies.


Will stares at the black and white images of my brain. “Keep holding still. You’re doing great.” All x-ray images remind me of those first fetal pictures that excite mothers so much. Those black and white images showcasing the subtle ebbing of movement, the first inclination of a miracle. Will, who is only trained to take the images—he will send them on to a neurologist to read—tilts his head at a shadowy mass in my right lobe.


On our way out, my mom says, “I saw your brain. It looked smart.” I grab her hand, and swallow, thinking that she will lose her breasts in a few short months, and the last thing I want her to worry about is my brain.


I dream of dogs. To sleep--perchance to dream. Wild dogs. Or to take arms against a sea of troubles. Feral dogs running in hospital hallways and ER parking lots. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come. They surround me in the waiting room, during surgery, in my hospital bed. To be, or not to be. They crowd my liver and breed in the walls of my brain. 


COURTNEY AMBER KILIAN has an MFA from UCSD. While at UCSD, she conducted research in Spain as a recipient of several writing grants. She is working on a novel, Anatomy of Growing, which is an in-depth look at humanity’s relationship to the natural world through a heroine who winds up farming in Southern California. “Color Has History,” an adapted excerpt from her novel, is the 2012 winner of A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments’ fiction contest. She teaches creative writing and composition in San Diego, and is currently a Lecturer for the John Muir College Writing Program at UCSD. Her work appears or is forthcoming in MARY: A Journal of New Writing as their New Voice in Nonfiction, 1913 a journal of forms, and California Prose Directory: New Writing from the Golden State. Follow her @CAmberKilian and find out more at


Photo by Lauren Henley