Shannon is currently a Junior at SCAD with a Writing major and an Art History minor. Unable to pass a bookshop without going in, her “To Be Read” pile has become multiple piles, while the 5 bookcases in her house have begun to bow from the weight of the books they hold. Bibliomania aside, Shannon spends her time spoiling her dogs, re-watching specific British cooking shows, and imagining a place where fall is 75-80% of the year.
Health or Food
“What do you mean, huh?” An ache began to burrow into nerves in the back of Molly’s eyes.
“I need to get my supervisor.”
Molly closed her eyes, exhaled, and nodded. The voice couldn’t hear her nodding and took the silence as acquiescence. She kept her eyes closed and leaned back her head until it was met by the head rest of her driver’s seat.
“Are you there?” There was a plea in the voice of the hospital employee on the word ‘you’.
“I’m here,” Molly said. Not sure if that was the answer to the employee’s plea, or the defeat.
Opening the lid of her left eye a crack, she could see a wall of illuminated taillights. They hadn’t moved since she began this call. It was the stretch of the interstate, filled with red taillights, that caused her to pick up the papers next to her, look at the number on the letterhead, and make this call. First, however, she spent five minutes discussing the benefits of breaking the deal she had made with herself. When she had returned from medical leave, she promised it would be different now. No more calls during her commute. No more comparison shopping, no more price matching. Just silence. Or sometimes music. Loud music. Whichever were most helpful that day. Then, the mail came as she was leaving the house.
“I was able to get my supervisor. Please hold while I connect you.”
It felt like the responsible thing to do. Just clear up this matter, move on, and there will still be time to sit in silence, after the call. You just have to make this call first, she told herself.
“So, there have been some changes made to your bill. What was the total you mentioned when you spoke with Tom?”
Molly extended her arm and grabbed the top paper on her passenger seat. Opening her eyes, the intense sunlight undid their minutes of rest. The ache was returning.
“$143.92. Did I get the forty-three and the ninety-two mixed up? If I did, I’m sorry.”
There was no response. In the last year, Molly had unlearned her childhood trait of filling silences. So, she waited. She closed her eyes again and strained to hear any sign of someone on the other end. There was no tapping of keys, or clicks of a mouse, or even breathing. It can’t all be on tablets, Molly thought, the hospital isn’t that nice. Molly inhaled, and considered breaking her second promise to herself today.
“I’m having trouble understanding something.” The supervisor’s voice came through the line, “The bill you’re holding says $143.92? When did you receive that?”
“Today.” Molly looked at the date on the bill, “It’s dated the 15th.”
More silence. She squirmed in her seat. She leaned across and opened the glove box pulling out a folded stack of papers. She walked her fingers across the rolled corners of the pages, dividing them with her digits when she needed to.
Molly interrupted the supervisor, “I have bills dated the 15thof this month, the 17thof last month, the 13thof the month before, the 16thof the month before that, and the 11thof the month before that. They all say$143.92. Is the hospital trying to say that I owe a different amount?”
There was a deep breath from the other end of the line. Pin pricks went off to the left and right of Molly’s spine. No one was that quiet for good news. The pricks reached the base of her neck, and flamed over her shoulders. She reminded herself not to scratch when her chest and throat began to itch. Molly didn’t need to lower her visor mirror, or readjust the rearview mirror, she knew she was covered in pink blotches. The hives had appeared 10 months ago, they were her body’s newest and most favored stress response.
“Just say it. Is the hospital trying to add on late fees? Have they tacked on 25%?”
The supervisor’s typing assured Molly that they were still on the line. But their silence caused the welts on her throat to become red and raised.
“There seems to be a change to your son’s bill. When he had his surgery, there was a program in place that paid for portions of pediatric surgeries. It covered universal things that all pediatric surgeries need: monitors, sutures, bandages. As you know, not anesthesia. That’s extra.”
“Yeah, I have a separate bill from them.” Molly said.
“Right. Well, the vote to not extend it passed in the House, yesterday. That program is now over.”
Molly inhaled through her nose, held it, and exhaled through her nose. “How much is the new bill?” Inhale. Exhale. Only through her nose. Molly knew if she opened her mouth at all, she’d vomit. Inhale.
“$30,465, ma’am.” Molly’s vision glazed. She forgot to breathe, much less how. Her head started nodding in an attempt to absorb the information, but it devolved to a bobbing motion.
“Ma’am? Ma’am? Are you there?”
Synapses tried to fire in time with others. Information tried to congeal. Thoughts tried to form. A horn honked right behind her. Her body flooded with adrenaline. Looking into her rearview mirror, she saw the driver’s hands thrown out over the steering wheel like they could force her into movement. Molly looked straight ahead. The taillights were gone. All the cars had pulled away, and she could no longer see any of them.
Molly jabbed at the red button, hanging up on the supervisor. She pressed the accelerator, and her vehicle responded. She increased pressure on the accelerator. The cars that had disappeared were now in front of her. She changed lanes to avoid taillights. Never removing her foot from the pedal. Molly hopped lanes any time taillights broke in front of her. The shoulder even functioned as her lane a few times. Yanking the steering wheel to the left, she skidded into the parking lot. Correcting to the right, she missed the line of ambulances that were waiting to go out on the next shift. Which started three minutes ago. She was late.
As Molly walked into the building, she grabbed her time card and walked into her shift supervisor’s cubicle. Laying her card on their desk, she sank onto the floor, using their desk drawers for back support. Hands resting on the knees she had pulled against her chest, Molly watched her thumbs as the left travelled from the bottom of her right nail to the top. Then her right thumb mirrored the action on her left thumbnail. The shift supervisor sat down in front of Molly.
“You’ve been catatonic for an hour.”
Molly focused her gaze on the person in front of her, “It’s all I make in a year. With overtime. Before taxes.” The supervisor didn’t understand the reference.
“Are you working today?” A nod was the only response.
“Mark got here late. He needs an EMT. The rig’s by the door.”
Molly stretched her legs, groaned, and got up. “Mark’s the worst.” And took the time card the supervisor slid across their desk. They’d changed her start time to the beginning of the shift.
Mark opened the passenger door of the rig, crooked in his arm was a drink carrier with an extra-large drink and a milkshake, a flat, plastic salad container, and a bag over his wrist that contained a burger, fries, onion rings, and condiments. Molly’s stomach whined. John was who she usually rode with, and even referred to as her partner. When they began riding together John would over order, and then convince Molly to eat some of his food. He claimed that it was Molly’s way of helping him lose weight for the Fire Academy. Molly pretended she didn’t notice that he always ordered an extra meal. She didn’t know that John knew about the surgery, and thought this was the only way he could help.
“You sure you don’t want me to run back in?” Mark hovered his straw just below the lip of the lid, and slurped the whipped cream in short spurts. The sucking sound made Molly’s eyes close, and her head tilt in pain. Molly shook her head.
“You’re the union contact, right? Do you like it?”, Molly asked.
Absorbed in his milkshake, Mark nodded his head as he swayed his shoulders from side to side. Molly assumed this was supposed to be taken as a seated dance of some kind, but it looked more like a clueless actor trying to portray a seizure on a medical drama.
“Is it challenging?” Molly asked. “The politics? Or the minutia of what’s being discussed?”
“Not really. My wife works in HR, at the home office. When we talk about work, she tells me how to vote.”
“Doesn’t the union help decide on benefits?”
“Oh yeah.” Mark tugged the stem out of his milkshake’s maraschino cherry with a pop. “Don’t use ours though. Our benefits suck! Especially the health insurance. You’re way better off buying your own.”
Molly nodded her head, and her eyes expanded. When her lids felt like they were stretched to the circumference of her eyeballs, she forced them to close in an awkward blink. After three of these awkward blinks, she opened her driver’s door, hung her foot out, and allowed gravity to pull her the rest of the way out of the ambulance. When her feet touched the ground, a thought popped in her brain that she may have looked like a snake or any other animal that is described as “slinky”. She walked to the back of the rig, pulled her arm out of the sleeve of her sweater, balled the sleeve up to the elbow, and shoved as much of it into her mouth as she could. When she shoved enough in so that she could only breathe through her nose, she screamed. When tears formed in the corners of her eyes, she stopped screaming. She removed the sleeve from her mouth, and noticing the damp pattern on it, chose to remove her arm from the other sleeve and throw the sweater over her shoulder. Tilting her head back, she blinked. Then she blinked again, and again. She paced from one edge of the rig, to the other, until the tears understood they were not allowed. She reached into the lowest pocket of the navy cargo pants of her uniform, pulled out her phone, and texted her shift supervisor.
Give me every call. I’m driving in circles, until I get one.
In response, she heard the radio on the ambulance call their number. She walked to the driver’s door, stepped in, and pressed the accelerator as she buckled her seatbelt. The quick movement forward, combined with a forceful gulp on Mark’s behalf, caused his milkshake to fill more of his mouth than expected.
As Mark sputtered, and coughed, Molly looked at him without turning her head, and said “Oh no, your milkshake. I’m sure you’re fine.”
With no one needing to fill empty slots, Molly walked to her car at the end of her shift. Climbing in the backseat, she shoved her work bag over the car-seat in the middle, and let it fall onto the other side. Never being an evangelist of the clean car mentality, Molly searched the foot wells for spare paper and a writing implement. Pulling her hand up, a small “Victory” escaped her mouth.
“So, if I don’t eat at work. Except when John is working. Maybe we could skip breakfast on non-work days. I could take the baby to see his grandma more. Her pantry is always full. Are different neighborhoods cheaper?”
She scribbled new numbers after each exclamation. By the last item, the back of the envelope resembled a betting bracket. She had the proof she had been avoiding: no matter what she did, the surgery couldn’t be paid off.
Opening the backseat door, she stepped out, and slammed it as hard as she could. It did nothing to help. She opened the driver’s door, sat down, and started the car. Windows down, radio all the way up, she didn’t notice that she hated the songs, and the station, that was playing. She reversed without looking, shifted into drive as soon she could make the entrance, and slammed the accelerator. Tires squealed as she turned right onto road that connected the parking lot to the interstate. Molly didn’t stop or slow down once on her commute. Because of this, she made it home in half the time. As her car passed all the other drivers, they assumed it had been her music the sustained, sharp screams were coming from.
She twisted the key in the lock and leaned her head in to listen. The apartment was quiet, and dim. Opening the door just enough to get inside, she sidestepped to avoid the apartment’s carpet. She loosened the laces of her boots and slipped her feet out of them, never leaving the little patch of linoleum just inside the door. Grabbing the collar of her shirt, she lifted while looking at the ceiling. Once her head was inside the garment, she pulled her arms inside and through to the bottom. The shirt folded in, so the outside portion is touching outside portion. Pulling straight down over her hips, she accomplishes the same outside to outside contact with her uniform pants. Carried to the back of the apartment, she stopped to throw them into the washing machine. The washer remembered the last cycles settings – Sanitize – She poured detergent and bleach into the machine and pressed the button to confirm another sanitize wash. Tempted to stop at the foot of the crib, Molly redirected her feet to the bathroom, texting her across the hall neighbor as she went: Home. Was he okay last night? I’ll turn off the monitor when I get out of the shower.
She twisted the nob of the shower as far to the left as she can. Steam rose, and swept down into the bathroom from behind the shower curtain. She applied the cleansers to her face and massaged in circles while listing the importance of self-care from one of the pamphlets at the hospital. Tears crept into the corners and blurred her vision.
“Not now,” she thought, “I haven’t removed my eye liner or my mascara. Raccoon eyes looks good on no one.”
The water beat against her hair, all other noise drowned out, as the tears washed down the drain. When the hiccups began, her internal voice asked, why crying in the shower? How many movies have women crying in the shower? It wasn’t funny, but it was enough of a joke to silence the noise that gave her away.
With her hair twisted in a towel, she put on her pajamas, and walked to the crib she had stopped herself from going to before. A panicked voice rose in her brain, screaming about germs, but her raw skin reassured her that scrubbing fixed that. Sam was thinking about sleep. On his back, with heavy lids. Molly smiled at the idea of Sleep presenting a debate in his brain, while Awake lost its half of the argument. She climbed into the crib with Sam, circling her arm around his head allowed her to rest hers on her shoulder as well. He didn’t move. She flipped the tab of his onesie zipper up and down; and thought about the scar that ran underneath it. There were cables underneath the scar. All following the line of this zipper.
A little cough came out, and she rested her hand on his chest to feel his breathing. As he inhaled, she felt a change from his usual breathing. She listened to the next five breaths, and thought she heard a rattle. A small rattle.
“Please, no, little one.” She whispered.
Five more breaths, and she was sure there was a rattle.
“I don’t get paid for another week. And this wouldn’t count as a checkup.”
Sam’s lids were now closed, and his body relaxed. She left her hand on his chest. To keep track of his breathing, to keep track of his heartbeats, and to continue the prayer she began at the first cardiologist’s appointment. It was less like a prayer, and more like a chant. When he was well, it was a normal enough sounding chant. “Let him be okay.” When he wasn’t feeling well, it got a bit darker. At six months old, he stopped gaining weight. The pediatrician called the cardiologist to report this. Sam had an appointment with them the next day.
The cardiologist said “Weight loss, or a lack of weight gain is a sign that your son’s condition is progressing. He needs surgery. It’s scheduled for next week.”
The chant circled Molly’s head that day, and every day, until Sam came home from the hospital. “Don’t hand me a grey baby. Tell me when he’s still warm, if you were unsuccessful.”
Another cough. She knew Sam was going to have to go to the pediatrician this week. Wait and see, she told herself. Not forever, just two days.
“Maybe they won’t require payment at the time of the appointment,” she lied to herself.
Reaching for her phone on the corner of the crib, Molly checked her bank account. “$143 for the hospital. $50 for gas. $100 for food,” she said. Her eyes drifted to the savings account.
“Two month’s rent,” she fidgeted with the zipper tab.
“Two month’s rent.”
His chest rose and fell. Familiar anxieties bubbled up, as she thought of his heart. It had already stopped once. They stopped it. The surgeon, and their team. After slicing into his soft skin, and cutting into his sternum. She remembered going to the first appointment at the cardiologist’s office.
When they told her what the surgery entailed, she’d pointed just to the left of center on Sam’s chest and said, “This is his first freckle. Do you think the surgeon could not cut it?”
The nurse had been kind, and said “He’ll just have to make more, but I don’t think the surgeon will be able to miss that one.”
When she’d gotten to see Sam after his surgery, she held his hand while she looked at the black sutures against his skin. She noticed that his freckle was still there. Just to the left of the line. She’d never met the surgeon before the surgery, so she was never sure if it was just coincidence or if the nurse told the surgeon’s nurse, and the surgeon abided.
Another cough. This was going to be a full-on cold in two days. Molly considered going to the doctor early, but that wasn’t sure about the billing.
“Perhaps I could get my paycheck early.” She said against the screen of her phone, to mask her voice. “I’ve already worked the hours.”
The phone buzzed in her hand. It was the hospital administration. She climbed out of the crib and walked into the living room. Answering after she created distance between her, and her sleeping son.
“I see that we spoke with you yesterday regarding your past due balance,” a nasally voice stated.
This was not the person from yesterday. “Yes. I was able to get some information, but I requested a full detail of my bill, as well as why it increased.”
“Because you didn’t pay at the time of the surgery, your bill was adjusted when the program expired. Can you please advise when you’ll be paying your balance?”
Molly paced her living room. Flashes of heat traveled up the sides of her spine, the welts were back. She tilted back her head, unravelling her hair’s towel crown. Breathing just through her nose, she tried to ignore the nausea.
“When you say balance, you’re referencing how much I owed at the time of the bill dated the 15th?”
“No.” the voice cleared their throat in aggravation, “I am referencing the $30,465.”
“I don’t have that.”
“Will you have it this week? Perhaps you could borrow it from someone.”
Molly’s ears were hot, “I don’t have that. I’m never going to have that.”
Thoughts swirled: two month’s rent, getting paid this week, sick baby, two month’s rent, getting paid this week, sick baby.
“Never is not an option, ma’am. What are you going to do about your debt?”
“Debt follows you, ma’am. A change of address doesn’t erase the $30,465 that you owe us.”
Molly gritted her teeth at “owe” and responded, “I appreciate that, and hope you have a service that offers a good exchange rate. Cause I’m moving to whichever industrialized country doesn’t force me to choose between health or food.”.
“That’s not a specific place. That applies to many places.” The voice enunciated each word with a sharpness that caused the caller to sound shrill.
Molly’s smile was manic, as she said, “Good luck finding our new address.” And ended the call by jabbing her index finger against the red circle.