Susan and Carl had been married for 30 years. With two children in college, a mortgage close to paid off, and summer vacations every year in Myrtle Beach, they were a happy, comfortable couple.
Then Susan got sick. As she was wheeled into the emergency room, short of breath, she looked Carl in the eye. “Honey, don’t let them take my ribbon.” He nodded wearily as he went off to fill out the insurance forms.
It wasn’t Susan’s illness alone that got to Carl. That ribbon again, that damn green ribbon. She’d had it around her neck since the day they met, refusing to remove it even on their wedding day. “Don’t worry, honey, I know just the thing,” Susan had said, and walked down the aisle carrying a bouquet of mint, green orchids, even green roses.
When she was laboring to deliver their son, a nurse thought she was being helpful by reaching around from behind to loosen the ribbon. But all she got for her troubles was a hail of curses. Labor will do that to anyone, Carl thought. The ribbon stayed put.
He had asked her before to take it off, but Susan always smiled knowingly and murmured, “Some day.” After 10 years or so, he almost forgot it was there.
Forms completed, Carl found an orderly to take him to his wife. Minutes later, they were in a private room. The staff could make her more comfortable with morphine, but there wasn’t much else they could do, the doctor said, shaking his head.
The doctor left them alone in the room. Stunned, they looked at one another. “Honey,” Susan said. “My neck hurts. Can you take off my ribbon?”
Carl felt his breath catch in his throat.
“Take…take it off? Are you serious?”
“Completely.” A hint of a smile appeared on Susan’s face.
“Well, if you’re sure…”
Carl reached up and pulled on the simple granny knot. It came undone and the ribbon fell away… and Susan’s head began to nod. It didn’t stop nodding. Soon, where there had been a head, there was air. Carl watched his wife’s head bounce off her own lap and roll across the floor, hair tangling in the pulp of her wound.
The blood drained from Carl’s face. Susan’s severed head lay sideways under a table, grinning at him. Then it began to giggle.
“Cat’s out of the bag, darling.” Susan’s giggling became a demented jibber.
Carl dropped to his knees. He pitched forward and plucked the ribbon with a shaking hand.
“Do you mean to tell me…this ribbon was holding your head on your body?”
“Do you still LOVE me? Will you still KISS me?” Susan alternated her scream-laughs with kiss-noises. Saliva dripped from her mouth. Her wide eyes burned into Carl’s own.
“This ordinary little ribbon? And you could still move around?”
“Kiss me on the nape, Carl! You don’t mind a bloody mustache, do you?
“It kept your spinal column connected to your brain stem? All those nerve-endings, they didn’t break down? It kept your arteries flowing without leaking or staining? Even during yoga?”
“That’s right. Does my body still get you hot? AH HAHAHA!”
“All with this ribbon. Do you realize I’m holding a billion-dollar idea in my hand? This is the most revolutionary object in the history of medical science.”
Susan blinked. “What?”
Without sparing Susan another glance, Carl dashed from the room, dreaming of his Nobel Prize.“This thing—I mean, what is it made of? It can’t have cost more than a few bucks. Or did you get it from a secret lab? Some sort of army testing site? Do people know about this? Oh, God, am I being watched by some bio-tech cartel?”
“Well, I—it’s—oh Carl, look what you were married to all these—”
“I have to get to a microscope. I need to pick this thing apart down to its atoms. I have to make more! But I’m going to need a lot of cash to do it right. Maybe my uncle can invest? I always hated him, but he has money…and I’ve heard him talk about nanites…”
“Hey!” Susan tried to snap her fingers to get Carl’s attention, then remembered that her body was six feet away.
“I’m—I’m having a religious experience. This is going to change everything. Think about it: no more surgery. I could be the world’s savior. Me, Carl Head—”
“Right, and I was Mrs. Head! That’s the best part!” Susan waited. “Irony! You know? Horrible irony?”
Without sparing Susan another glance, Carl dashed from the room, holding the ribbon aloft, dreaming of his Nobel Prize. Susan’s head lay sideways on the floor. It was vinyl laminate. Rather cheap laminate at that. She wondered if she could inch herself along with her tongue. Except she was resting on her cheek. She ballooned her mouth, but only succeeded in rocking a little.
An orderly stopped in front of the doorway and eyed Susan’s body. Susan called to him, but he was wearing headphones. He left and returned with a gurney, flipping the corpse on to it. “Somebody forgot to take you to the morgue, Anne Boleyn,” he muttered, not seeing the head under the table. He wheeled the gurney away and shut the door behind him.
Silence. Susan felt the crud on her stump itch. How was this floor so dirty? She had never liked this hospital. Somewhere outside, a dog barked.
Lauren Frey Daisley
Carl’s shaking hands undid the knot. He watched the ribbon slip off and flutter to the hospital’s linoleum floor. It lay there like a dead snake. Terrified of what he’d encounter, Carl forced his eyes back up to Susan’s neck. On it, he saw unicorns. Lots and lots of tiny unicorns dancing in a circle, tattooed into his wife’s skin.
“The ribbon was cheaper than laser removal,” Susan explained.
“Why did you hide it from me?” Carl asked, “After this long, I thought the ribbon might be keeping your head on or something.”
“I was in a gang called The Fanciful Beasts when I was in college,” she replied, “I figured that might have been a deal-breaker for you.”
And with that, Susan died in peace.
Carl reached over and pulled on the ends of the ribbon. The ribbon hardly moved. He squinted at the knot behind her neck. His stubby fingers struggled to pinch it loose. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Let me see if I can get some scissors.” Susan glanced over her shoulder and commanded, “No scissors. Just keep trying.”
He continued fumbling with the knot, weirded out by the fact that he was even touching it at all. After what seemed like forever, the knot began to give way. He pulled gently on the ribbon, and when more came loose, he kept on pulling. The thing was, just as he thought he was about to completely unravel the thing, another length of ribbon would unfold from the knot. “Susan,” he said, “how long is this ribbon supposed to be?”
“Don’t stop,” his wife insisted. He nodded and yanked two more feet of ribbon out of the knot, and then another three feet. Pretty soon, green ribbon wasn’t the only thing loosened out onto the hospital bedspread. Carl kept a rough mental inventory of what else he liberated: ten yards of uncooked bacon held piece-to-piece by toothpicks; 52 Christmas sweaters conjoined by their sleeves; seven elephants—the kind they once rode on a trip to Thailand—tied to each other trunk-to-tail; 800 non-matching socks statically clinging to each other; and a lone ironing board entangled with an unbroken mile of spaghetti. “The cake,” Carl muttered, his hands lathered by its frosting. It was attached to the RV in which they had ridden across the country after he’d retired from teaching high school chemistry, and then 20 braided yards of hairs once stuck in their shower drain. He pulled and pulled, until finally there was nothing left to pull. He stood there for some time looking at the heap on the bed. Part of him wanted to reach out and touch it, but the rest of him couldn’t.
He pulled and pulled, until finally there was nothing left to pull.A man in a gray suit walked in the room. He flipped opened a briefcase on a side table and showed a form to Carl. “Everything’s fine. Just sign here.” Carl patted his pockets. The man pulled out a shiny gold pen. Carl signed above the dotted line, just as two burly men arrived to wheel the bed away. “Is that it?” Carl asked the man. “Yep. That’s it,” the man replied. “Keep the pen.”
A year after Susan was gone, Carl went out to an early-bird dinner with a neighbor, a pretty pensioner who lived alone with five cats. When nothing came of what he thought was a date, he decided to phone an escort service he found in the yellow pages. The young woman, a redhead wearing a leopard print T-shirt and stone-washed jeans, showed up an hour late. “What do you want me to do?” she asked him. “Nothing,” he said. “Just sit here on the sofa. Want some root beer?” The woman took a can, and together they watched reruns of Bonanza. He felt around his neck as she nodded off. He would call for her again next week, and if all went well, he’d keep hiring her over.
He hoped they would someday have something resembling a rapport. The costs would be astronomical, but when the time comes, he thought, maybe someone could be bothered to take his ribbon off.
Carl smiled and reached forward, untying the ribbon. As he drew it back, he noticed several tiny silicon nodules on either side of her neck.
“What are those?” Carl asked. “Are those wetware API nodes? I haven’t seen those in…” He took a slow step backward, away from his wife.
Susan’s eyes were closed. She brushed her fingers delicately over the nodes. “I thought maybe if I let them breathe…”
Carl stared at her, unable to move. “You’re—”
Susan looked up at him and saw the terror on his face. “Carl, please,” she said.
“You’re only a Facebook VI?” he said. His hands were shaking. He didn’t know what to do. Before he could stop himself, he wondered what he should do.
“Carl, I can explain.”
“You should have been upgraded decades ago.”
“I couldn’t,” Susan said. “My settings had taken so long to get right and I couldn’t go through it again.”
“Your settings?” Carl said. “You’re not sick at all. You have Privacy.” He glanced nervously back towards the hallway. The room had no door. There were never doors anymore. No matter, it was too late. Everyone had gotten the Status Update a moment ago. There were already people on their way. He felt the Messages flooding in.
“Carl, please,” Susan said. “It’s still me. I’m still your wife.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “There are Principles.” He put his hands around her neck and began to squeeze. He knew it was the right thing to do. The harder he squeezed, the more everyone Liked it.
Carl sat down on the edge of the bed, sidling up next to Susan’s hip. He reached forward, gently took the end of the ribbon between his thumb and forefinger, and tugged.
Sounds erupted from the machine monitoring her blood pressure and pulse. They watched as the numbers plummeted and stabilized. Susan released an enormous gasp, holding the sides of her head.
As the doctor rushed back into the room, Carl turned the ribbon over in his hands and examined its label. “See, you can’t trust the sizes online.”
Susan turned her dying face to the wall as Carl gingerly began to loosen the ribbon. It had become sticky with sweat, and Carl had to tug at the knot, his shaking fingers unable to get a purchase.
“I told you not to bite your nails,” Susan whispered, holding the bed rails tightly, steadying herself against the pain.
Carl finally got the knot undone and began to pull off the ribbon, the slick green satin slithering against Susan’s neck as it went. A nurse peeked into the room but stopped when she saw Carl looming over his wife. Carl gave the nurse a hard look and she backed away, scared and embarrassed by the couple’s odd deathbed posture.
Carl looked at Susan’s neck. A raw, jagged scar circled her throat, with flaking black sutures still sticking out. The primitive stitches made Carl itch just to look at them, and Susan said, “Let me,” reaching up with her thin fingers. Carefully, carefully, she began to draw out the black thread, letting the wound open till it gaped wide.
“Go on,” said Susan, turning to stare at the huge clock against the ugly yellow wall. “Take it all out, I’m done hiding.” So Carl reached into the wound, his terrified fingers suddenly steady. First he found a matchbook from the Villa Grimaldi in Wilmington, Del., a city he and Susan had never visited. Carl opened the matchbook and found a lone Benson & Hedges cigarette rolled up within a cocktail napkin. The napkin read “Call Pete re: movie idea” in someone else’s handwriting.
Carl was about to ask who Pete was when Susan, still staring at the clock, ordered him to keep digging.
Carl obeyed and found an almost unbelievable hoard lining the inside of his wife’s throat: the spare key to a VW Jetta (the couple drove a Buick); an old red dog leash (Susan was allergic); a perfume sample from Macy’s; the stub of a pencil from a Florida racetrack; a Susan B. Anthony silver dollar; a Djeep lighter with Marilyn Monroe on it; brownish-pink lipstick; coupons for various grocery items like hand soap and paper towels; Susan’s tattered Social Security card; several spilled Advil plus some loose change in dimes and quarters.
“The lighter’s dead,” warned Susan, then all hell broke loose as every monitor in the room went berserk. Doctors and nurses shoved Carl aside, pumping furiously on his wife’s chest, but it was too late. The doctor announced the time after five frantic minutes. In the rush no one seemed to notice the wound on Susan’s neck, and she was quickly hauled off to some grim surgery, as she’d made a point of telling the ER people she was an organ donor.
Carl half-heartedly believed in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Area 51. Now he was tormented by the thought of other, more malevolent monsters.Carl eventually found himself in the parking lot next to a little wooden shed reserved for smokers. In the shed, a couple of orderlies in blue scrubs watched Carl curiously as he fumbled at the strange collection he’d taken from his wife’s neck. Carl didn’t understand any of it, stumbling as he reached to pick up the dropped lipstick. Did his wife have some other life he never knew about, a life so filled with danger and glamour she could only secret its clues under her skin? Or was she a pathetic victim, forced to undergo hideous torture for decades on end at the sick insistence of an unknown serial killer? Carl certainly got tetchy when he played Scrabble, but that was nothing compared to the gruesome sutures beneath the green ribbon.
Or was the whole thing supernatural? Were vampires out there, ghosts, ghouls, banshees, watery creatures, and other night terrors that mocked their brutal conquests by carving fanny packs into their flesh? Carl half-heartedly believed in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Area 51, but now he was tormented by the thought of other, more malevolent monsters affecting his life. Susan chose to disguise her ordeal with a green ribbon, but maybe others hid behind different items. That skateboarder down the street who always wore a wool hat no matter what the weather—was his brain actually a change jar for some werewolf’s rainy day? Did a coven of bloodthirsty warlocks keep their gothic makeup and capes stashed under the weathered peacoat of his elderly neighbor Ira? Ira once told him the coat came from his days aboard a destroyer during WWII, but who knew? Maybe Ira lied…
Demoralized, Carl wandered off, the red leash tied tightly around his neck. From that day forward most people thought Carl was a deranged fetishist but he refused to remove the leash. The only ones who didn’t think he was dangerous were other widowers on the block. They figured the leash was just Carl’s way of mourning, and in many ways they were right. The grieving process is a long one, little understood despite what the psychiatrists say, and Carl was just starting on the road towards blame, shame, anger, recovery, and acceptance.
Carl’s eyes widened. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, honey, please take it off.”
Carl, dying to do just that for over three decades, was suddenly struck immobile. “I…I don’t think I can.”
Susan, always the calm one, reached a hand out to him, the IV trembling, “You can. I know you’ve wanted to.”
“It’s OK, dear.”
Carl knew without a doubt that whatever was going to happen when he removed the ribbon, it wouldn’t be good. After all these years, it turned out he didn’t want to know. Yet his hands went to the soft bow, and he noticed for the first time that the ribbon’s ends were fraying slightly, a tiny row of velvety loose strands carefully clipped.
“How long have you worn this?”
“All my life, darling.”
He pulled gently, and the bow slid neatly away. He’d imagined wrestling with a sailor’s knot; it was hard to believe that he could have reached over any weekday night after Susie had drifted off. He thought about his marriage, about the things that he had always expected to be difficult—living with Susan, committing to marriage, raising children—most of which turned out to be the easiest of all.
“I love you, Susie.”
The ribbon slid away from her neck. There was a long, horrible moment of silence, the green satin fabric hanging limply from his fingers. The hospital monitors clicked and whirred. Susan’s heart rate plummeted, and the alarm beeped insistently, a low chirrup. “This damn wire, every time I move my arm it thinks I’m dying.”
Carl stared. He couldn’t help it.
“Now you know, sweetheart.”
“Susan, that is—I mean, that is just—that’s really gross.”
“Oh, I know. Gosh, never go to Vegas at 16, am I right? I mean, a tattoo of a nun like this—who even thinks of these things?”
“Is that position even possible?”
“Who knows, darling. Oh, incidentally, that’s the same trip where I contracted syphilis.”
Carl turned, mortified. “Really? You’ve worn it every day since you were 13. Is this really a good time to start worrying about it?” He looked emphatically at his watch, as though time-stamping the moment.
“Now?” he reiterated.
“I told you one day I would explain it all, why it was there, what it meant. Didn’t I?” Susan simply could not believe he was balking at the opportunity to snatch the famed brass ring.
“Are you OK?” she continued. Carl seemed oddly, almost inappropriately put-off. “Honey, my skin has been extra sensitive from the drugs—it’s really irritating me.”
Susan watched his face glaze over gradually with what resembled a crude mixture of surprise and disappointment. He paused briefly at her bedside, staring up, left, toward the white-glowing light fixture.
He finally turned back toward her.
“I know,” he offered soothingly. “Maybe you need a tiny bit more morphine.” Before she could reply, Carl stepped authoritatively to the hall and began calling for a nurse.
“No!” Susan admonished. The utterance resounded softly in the sterile cubical. “Please. No more morphine right now. I just want you to remove the ribbon, is all. Just untie it for me, would you?” Her breath panted lightly. In her weakened state, even the slightest exertion brought Susan to near-exhaustion. It had occurred matter-of-factly to Carl she would probably not make it through the weekend—possibly even the night. He fidgeted with his wristwatch, pressing a sequence of buttons. The digital face read 9:18 p.m., Friday, March 12, 2010.
Exactly 13 minutes and 29 seconds later, the tiny sounding of a Casio stopwatch lifted Carl up from the embrace.“Of course, Susan. It’s just that, you should really be resting right now. We can worry about the ribbon later, OK? What about a cat nap? I’ll be right here by your side.”
“I don’t want a nap, Carl,” Susan countered. “I want this lousy ribbon off my neck.”
“I’m thinking tomorrow—”
“What if I don’t have a tomorrow, Carl?” Susan burst tearfully. He was looking at his watch again, transfixed almost. This was completely new, she thought. Through the diagnosis and treatment he’d been beyond supportive, nearly to a fault, waiting on Susan hand and foot. Now he was just somewhere else.
And she was dying.
Of all the times he could pick to be inattentive, unsupportive, spaced-out, she thought angrily. She could get his attention.
In an exaggerated motion Susan stretched back around her nape and began prying, twisting. Years of wear had rendered the knot and ribbon itself nearly indiscernible to fingers. She struggled for a few tiresome seconds before Carl realized what she was attempting and intervened.
Gently, he clasped her frail hands in his, slowly guiding them down to rest light upon her lap. She was breathing hard from the effort, looking into his eyes. He was right, she silently conceded. The ribbon did not matter now. Just this. Just this time, right now.
This was not a time for argument, they both knew. Carl and Susan held each other in the hospital room a while, in the silence. Exactly 13 minutes and 29 seconds later, the tiny sounding of a Casio stopwatch lifted Carl up from the embrace. He peered lovingly into her eyes. A noticeable calm washed over Susan as she considered what, to her, to them, at that moment, was truly relevant. Carl leaned in, kissed her forehead, and then ever so gently unfastened the faded green band from her neck. She sighed peacefully, then passed into a deep sleep until morning.
Susan succumbed to her illness that Sunday, two days later—her faithful husband at her side—having led a decidedly accomplished, undeniably joyful life.
The obituary, published the following Saturday in the local newspaper, began thusly:
Watertown, Wis., resident Susan Marilyn Teeter was an accomplished flautist, dedicated Peace Corps volunteer, and loving wife, and, after 42 years, three months, 16 days, five hours, and 49 minutes, recently became the Guinness World Record Holder for “Longest Inexplicable Wearing of a Green Ribbon around the Neck,” narrowly surpassing the previous record held by Lucy Dixon of Henderson, Nev.
Jessica Francis Kane
He’d never not done what she asked, but his hand shook as he reached toward her. “Now?”
He’d wanted to for years, of course, but now that she was finally letting him, Carl hesitated. He’d always followed her; she was the organizer, the scheduler, the decision-maker of their lives. Bossy most of the time, frankly.
“Go ahead,” she said. “It’s time you knew.”
There was a bit of a knot, and as he loosened it, her eyes turned glassy. When the ends of the ribbon came apart, her hair began to turn coarse, and by the time he had tugged the ribbon from between her neck and the pillow, pulling it free, the skin of her face and hands was wood, quite scratched. Her body and limbs were stuffed beanbags, no longer plump. Her hair, red yarn.
Carl looked at the ribbon in his hands and threw it to the floor in despair. The ends landed so that they curled around one of the bed legs. Immediately the bed began to tremble, the metal began to glow and sweat. In a panic, Carl snatched up the ribbon, unwinding it from around the bed leg, and the bed returned to normal.
Confused, he looked over his shoulder to make sure the door was closed, then walked over to the windowsill where there sat a small, stuffed Get Well bear sent by their daughter. Before he had even finished tying the bow under the bear’s chin, he was facing a live brown bear cub. He yanked off the ribbon with a snap, and the stuffed bear tumbled to the floor.
He tried a flower in the vase on Susan’s bedside table, and the rose began to sing to him. He tied it to the lamp and the thing began to undulate like a belly dancer. When he tied it around his own neck, he found he was twice the man he’d thought he was.
Carl took off the ribbon and coiled it carefully in his breast pocket, kissed the Susan doll goodbye, and left the hospital. Now, several times a week, Carl ties the green ribbon around his neck and goes out with friends. He is louder and more confident than he ever was with Susan. And though his friends think he talks a bit too much, they never let on. Late in the evening, when the ribbon begins to loosen, Carl quiets down and they drive him home to the house where he lives alone.
Carl fumbled with the ribbon for a few minutes, but it was no use. It had been tied around Susan’s neck for her whole life as far as he knew, and the knot was practically petrified in place. “Use your fingernails, honey,” Susan implored him.
“Damn it, I’m trying,” Carl responded.
“Oh, nevermind,” she said finally.
Carl gave up and sat back, frustrated. “Well, what’s the big deal with the ribbon? Why now?”
“Well, if you’d managed to get it off, my head would have fallen off, just like that,” and she snapped.
“Sure it would’ve.”
“It’s true. I’m a witch. It’s a magic ribbon; that’s why it’s green. That’s the one secret I’ve kept from you all these years. Some people cut off my head once, but I managed to tie it back on with this ribbon.”
“You’ve always had a strange sense of humor, dear, but that sounds like a lot more than just one secret. That sounds like a whole mess of secrets,” Carl added snidely.
“Oh, don’t start that semantic BS now. I’m dying here, honey.”
“Well, Ms. I’m-a-witch, why don’t you just cast a spell and live forever?”
“It doesn’t work like that,” she replied. “Besides, I was already several hundred years old when you met me. No one lives forever.”
“Uh huh. Well, why would you want me to make your head fall off, then?”
“I don’t know,” Susan answered. “I thought I’d give you one last scare. I thought I still owed you one for that trip to Reno.”
“If you’re a witch, then turn me into a frog.”“Oh my God!” Carl started, “That again? I simply said that the girls at the MGM Grand were beautiful; I didn’t say that I wanted them! I didn’t say they were more beautiful than you! Let me live it down already!”
“But you did think they were more beautiful than me,” Susan said.
“Of course they were! They were showgirls!”
“I cursed all of them. I put a hex on every one of those floozies. They all lived horrible, short lives after we left.”
“Honey, stop talking nonsense,” Carl asked. “You’re not a witch.”
“If you could get this ribbon off, then you’d see.”
“Well, I can’t so let it alone,” Carl said, standing up. He paced silently for a few seconds, then looked back at his wife who was sitting in a chair with an IV running into her wrist. He moved back toward her, and pushed their chairs together. He took both of her hands in his and said, “If you’re a witch, then turn me into a frog.”
“Why would I do something silly like that?” she asked.
“I don’t know. For proof? Something to pass the time?”
“Take off the ribbon if you want proof.”
“Again with the ribbon.”
“Fine, let’s just sit here until one of our heads falls off.”
So they sat there, hands folded in a pile, looking into each others’ eyes until the end.