THE PROFESSIONAL

hospital_room_empty

No, not the movie.

This is a short piece I wrote, hoping I could dip my toes back into the literary pool just in case I decided to trash screenwriting forever. I won’t throw away screenwriting (for now), but we writers like our backup options, the things that make us feel cozy and safe. Literary prose makes me feel quite cozy. Cocoa by the fire, anyone?

No?

Whatever. I have cats.

I submitted this piece to BASTION sci-fi magazine and received a very positive email a month later from the editor-in-chief about the good feedback from his staff. Today he emailed again to tell me it was ‘not a fit’ and that while the characters engaged in an ‘interesting conversation,’ it was not big enough. It apparently needed something more to make the cut.

I read it and still feel good about it. Part of writing is trucking forward without a care for others’ opinions, even if they may be right (because he probably IS right), and then sharing it with others just for the joy of sharing the written word.

So. Here it is.

* * *

You spend enough of your life sitting in hospitals, you learn some things. Indubitably useless things, crystalline nuggets of information, pertinent if only so as to maintain a level of useless sanity and yet, still. You learn. Your brain doesn’t give a flying this or that if a something learned is a something meaningful. Hospitals exemplify that. Being a Professional exemplifies that.

I’ve learned that lungs hiss when aided by machines, soft Darth Vader vibrations. The slop is called applesauce but it’ll scratch your throat going down, pinky-promise. The color scheme is and always will be rotting pearl and heartache pink, a plasticized sheen as if some guy in a hazmat suit sprays it once in the morning and then half-asses it at the end of his shift. My pet theory is that the spray might be remnants of undesired applesauce. And the sterile hallway stink eventually saturates into the crushed ice, even when you manage to get to the ice machine first thing in the morning. When you crunch it, do so deliberately. An aggressive breed of ice like that requires some conviction.

This evening has placed me in Room 223. Smack middle of Hospice Hall, they call it. The dying and wanting to die, the geriatric overlords of society, people who hang so desperately to wrinkled tenure. I like them all the same. If you were to officially ask me, anyway, I’d tell you I liked them. I got the call early, five in the morning. A last-minute appointment for one of the last people on this rocky bulb we call Earth. We’re all waning here, sort of waiting out the physical remnants of humanity. I’ll be one of the very, very last, I do know that. My work involves uploading civilization to that virtual cloud, equivalent to shoving people – politely – into life rafts off a drowning Titanic. Such is the duty and life of a Professional Cloud Consultant. Some don’t want to go. Some want to stay and die with it, noble captains of the Earth. Screw ’em, I say. You want to stay with the polar bears? Be my guest. And if you’re my guest, that means you first, me last. I’ll probably have a beer when that day comes. Share it with that last polar bear.

My charge today is a skeletal heap of a woman named Harriet, wires and tubes threading her in gory crochet, medicated doily of a long life slipping down a clogged drain. Her head resembles a cracked pool ball, abandoned alien egg, veins mapping spot-mottled skin so loose and waxen it reminds me of raw won ton. I balance my time between watching her and checking my pulsette, the thin silver bracelet hanging on my wrist. Harriet’s pulse hovers above it in red hologram, slow and getting slower.

I clear my throat and inch my chair closer to her bed, wooden legs screeching. “You about done yet?”

Her eyes flutter. “Been a long ninety-something years. I don’t rush things.”

“Is it all flashing before your eyes, or what?”

“My life?”

“Your life.”

“Glaucoma’s making that a hard thing to tell.” A finger bent by arthritis points at her face. “They used to be blue.”

“Your eyes, you mean.”

“Cornflower blue. Now they’ve got husks and everything’s cloudy. They were my favorite part of being me.”

“You still get to be you.” I toy with the pulsette. “You can have your cornflower blue again when I upload you. Hell, you can have nuclear orange if you want. They got it all up there in the cloud. You wanna look like Michael Jackson? You got it, sister. You wanna be a squirrel? That, too. Amazing stuff.”

“No. My shade of blue is gone. You couldn’t ever make that kind of blue again.”

I check the time. My suit’s getting itchy. They call it the ‘simple suit,’ this all-black thing meant to make Professionals look approachable during an upload. Black tie, black jacket, black slacks. Black shoes polished so mirror-fresh you can see your past lives in the reflection. It comes off as technological grim reaper to me. But that’s me. God, it’s like wool. I work for a multi-billion dollar industry and they can’t find us better suits? I pull at a loose thread and it rips at the root, threatening to undo the whole thing. I tuck it away.

“You got any stories?” I say.

“I didn’t hire a procrastinator.”

“C’mon. You look like the kind of girl who did sleepovers at Gatsby’s place, skinny-dipped in his pool the morning after.”

Her pulse quickens and she affords a huge smile. “There’s some stuff about wars in there, too, but I don’t got the time or the energy.”

“C’mon.”

“You’re wily. I told them I wanted a nice boy who did his job, didn’t ask questions.” But she cackles, and I laugh with her.

I brush myself off and stand by her bed, my little metal toolbox on her side table. Just as I unlatch the thing, the swish of a door distracts me.

A pinched nurse swings into the room. “Mr. Morrison?” she spats. “You ought to be done soon. I truly mean it.”

Harriet glares as best she can, husks burning. “Is that you again?” She slaps the sheets with her bones. “Get the hell out. We’re busy. My brain’s going up to the cloud, lady, I’m busier than you’ve ever been in your sorry life.”

I turn away, stifling a laugh. The nurse huffs out of the room and slams the door. Harriet settles into her pillows more comfortably and I open up my tools. Syringe, a computer chip, and a touchscreen monitor to supplement the pulsette.

“Want me here or in the hallway?” I ask.

Mumbled indecipherables. I lean in. “Here,” she says. “Stay here.”

I flick the syringe, liquid bubbling. “Any last words?”

“I don’t want my kids at the upload ceremony. They took all my money.”

“You got it.”

“Only peonies when I get there.”

“Duly noted.”

She nods the go-ahead. I press into the crook of her elbow, feeling for the sweet spot, and inject slowly but surely. Her husks flicker, rolling back. This is the worst part, the pseudo-death, and so I try to walk away. I hope beyond all hope that she doesn’t dissolve into a seizing fit with foam at the mouth, but a cold hand grasps mine in a fevered clench. An ancient’s death grip.

Harriet stares up at me. A long wheeze plumes from the back of her throat. They always do that, you know, they always wheeze and it’s apparently normal. At least that’s what the pamphlets say, though I vowed to stop consulting the advice of pamphlets a long time ago. I’m happier for it.

The pulsette vibrates in a tiny frenzy on my wrist, belching bleats, as Harriet’s heart thumps to slow motion. Every beat sounds like a mountainous, unnecessary effort to keep this frail, unnecessary body up and in working order. I don’t want to watch but her hand keeps clenching with a force stronger than her heart’s frantic push and pull, and so I rub a nervous thumb over her knobby knuckles, the valleys of stretched skin.

Her squeezing weakens considerably. The medicine’s going full-force now, wracking her body with a million chemicals I’m too lazy to remember and too underpaid to care about. There was an orientation once on the makeup of the injectable we used, something about brain-altering molecules and things so tiny it doesn’t matter in the long run as long as it works. It always does.

“Cloud,” she murmurs. “Bright.”

I give her a final squeeze. “Yeah.”

And there, right before she leaves for good, before her essence or self or humanity or whatever existentialism is en vogue drifts into a pixelated wonderland of solved problems and mended hearts; right there, I think I see it. Her head tilts back and her lips curl up, Cheshire secrets, and the husks dissolve.

She wasn’t lying. The things really are honest-to-God, cornflower blue.

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