The glass hospital doors dissipated to allow the paramedics entrance. Once they crossed over the threshold, red lasers brought the faux glass back into place. The glossy white walls of the hospital held blinking interfaces promoting different drugs and med kits for the average citizen, chief among them ads for the Clean and Clear.
“Breathe easy, get your Clean and Clear today!”
On the screen, a State patron held up a clear tube with a small filter at the bottom. She put the tube to her mouth and pressed a green button, activating the vacuum-like power of the machine. In an instant, the tube went from white to light gray.
The doctor on-call hated the commercial. It ran every day, at least twenty times a day. There was no other ad to play, since Clean and Clear was the chief sponsor of the hospital. She could recite the ad slogan in her sleep, and even now, she said it under her breath as it ended.
“Breathe easy, get your Clean and Clear today!”
She approached the two paramedics, gesturing to the burden they had wheeled inside.
“What’s his story?”
One paramedic answered while the other kept wheeling their patient further into the hospital.“He suffered cardiac arrest, and I defibrillated him on the way over. Got a heartbeat on him, but he’s still out.”
From her front pocket, the doctor removed a white object the size of a pen. She bent over her patient to peer into his face. With one hand, the doctor opened the man’s eyelid, and with the other, she waved the pen across his unseeing eye. A green laser scanned his pupil. The doctor stepped back, holding up the pen. Along the side of it, a red holographic panel appeared. The panel yielded John Doe’s photo and background information: his religious affiliations, occupation, address, credit report, and net worth, in that order.
Both his credit and net worth were below average, which would have been fine, had it not been in combination with an “N/A” under religious affiliation. The doctor weighed all of the factors, and sighed.
“Sir, by law, I am required to offer you the option of Amnesty in lieu of payment. Should you wish to decline this offer, then you will be taken to an alternative hospital.”
Amazingly, the offer did little to rouse the unconscious man. The doctor shrugged.
“Alright. Take him to Tranquility.”
The second paramedic spoke. “Ah, c’mon ma’am. That’s over twenty minutes away, and we’ve got more people to pick up. This guy isn’t even awake, just take him.”
“Sorry, I can’t do that. You saw his I.D. scroll.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you’re real sorry.” The first paramedic replied.
“What was that?” The doctor narrowed her eyes.
She was a Prominent who didn’t like to be questioned. The paramedic sensed that and decided not to push the issue.
“Nothin’. We’re goin’.”
Both men wheeled the gurney towards the dissipating glass doors; now ya see ‘em, now ya don’t.
“Wouldn’t wanna report you boys for Un-diligent Conduct.” The doctor called after them.
In response, the men rolled their eyes. They were suddenly glad to drive away from the State hospital.
Inside, the doctor nudged the attendant nearest her. “You hear all that noise?”
The nurse nodded. “Everyone expects a free ride these days.”
Tranquility Hospital did not live up to its name. Unlike the waiting room at the State hospital, it was filled with patients in dire need. And unlike the State hospital, Tranquility did not have major sponsors. Gold Buyers and Quick Loan posters covered the walls.
The staff at Tranquility mirrored the dismal surroundings: peeling paint, dingy floors, and entry doors to the e.r. that slid open on a mechanical belt. There were no pristine counters, smiling nurses, or dissipating doors. What Tranquility did have was a steady influx of sick people.
When paramedics wheeled in the man the State hospital had refused, they were not received with prompt service. They were used to as much at Tranquility, and so, they felt little shame in parking their burden by the nearest dirty wall. They left the way they’d come in, all without saying a word to anyone about their arrival, their subsequent departure, or their patient’s condition.
Because he wasn’t bleeding or screaming, John Doe wasn’t a primary concern at Tranquility. Cutbacks in staff had forced Tranquility to reassess its definition of “patients in need upon arrival”. Gunshot wounds, c-plane collateral, and head traumas were patients in need. From a Tranquility point-of-view, John wasn’t currently in need.
He lay by the wall, unattended for ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes. Finally, a woman came over and wheeled him away. No one had paid attention to John’s presence thus far, and his departure went unnoticed as well.
The woman took him down an empty hallway not meant for patients. She stopped at a door marked “Staff Only”. Where a doorknob should have been, there was a flat gray pad. The woman touched her finger to the pad, but not to sync the lock with her interface. With her jeans and hooded sweatshirt, she didn’t fit the look of the Tranquility Hospital staff. Jeans or no, the door opened at her touch and she wheeled the man inside.
The room was full of storage boxes, utility supplies, and space to spare for a private conversation. After closing the door behind her, the woman perched on a stack of boxes. She assessed the sleeping man in front of her and made a decision. The room was silent until John Doe’s unconscious fart escaped his ass. A smell akin to rotting bacon filled the room and the woman coughed. When her lungs cleared, she touched a finger to the man’s chest. Her fingers emitted a blue spark.
John Doe was suddenly awake as he’d never been before in his life.
He looked around the room, and then at the woman. He didn’t ask “Where am I?” He didn’t ask “Who are you?” What he asked was:
“What’d you do to me?”
The woman didn’t look happy. “I did what I promised. Now that you know I’m serious, I hope you’ll tell me what I want to know.”
“I don’t remember, Cleary.”
From the look of the man, remembering was the last thing on his mind. He was clutching his chest and breathing shallowly. Every few seconds, his eyes kept scanning the room for an escape. The man’s well-being could nothing to Cleary. She was as narrow-minded in her pursuit of information as a Prominent.
The man lay back on his cot, defeated. “Well, I know he moved, but that’s it.”
“I don’t know.”
“Where?” Cleary repeated.
A blue spark fired from her fingertips and she held it above John Doe’s heart. He whimpered. With the little bit of strength that remained in him, John crawled away from the heat of Cleary’s hand.
“Okay! He moved to Atlanta. That’s all I know!”
The heat continued to hover over John’s heart. “Atlanta’s a big fucking place. Where in Atlanta?”
“I don’t know! He moved there a long time ago. Met a cute girl, I heard. Maybe he got married, had some kids. Maybe he’s gay; it’s Atlanta after all. Hell if I know. That’s everything, I swear.” A small hole had burned through his shirt from the concentration of heat. “Please stop!”
Cleary withdrew her hand. “Why was it so hard to tell me all that the first time?”
“You’ll know when you meet the bastard.” John panted.
Cleary chuckled, but not because she was amused.
Everyone she had questioned had referred to her father by the name at some point in the conversation. When she finally met Matheson, Cleary thought she might just refer to him as “bastard” indefinitely. Calling him papa was certainly out of the question.
Bitch, John thought as Cleary left the storage room. The hospital bill he would incur was bound to cost him at least a year’s pay, if not more.
Theoretically, Cleary could have driven from Tranquility Hospital to Atlanta. She had the information she needed, and she could have moved on. There was something holding her back, and it wasn’t anything as blah as morals. No, Cleary’s real problem was money.
Six months with no job=stony-broke. Her empty pockets could barely fund a trip to Tranquility; Atlanta would have to wait. Unless Cleary was willing to cross a few more lines. Hell, she recently put a man into cardiac arrest. If she could do that, her next idea would be easy to pull off.
Cleary could have asked her family for the money, like a normal person, but she no longer rationalized as a normal person would. Asking for money would raise questions like
What is it for?
Where are you going?
Why haven’t you been eating lately?
Better to get the money her way. Her mother was already worried about her behavior. The rest of her various aunts and cousins followed her mother’s example. Regardless, she had manipulated them for information on Matheson.
It had taken her months of tedious conversations to extract the right names, but finally, Cleary had found a lead in Matheson’s friend, John. He had been unwilling to share what he knew, and that’s when she had gotten angry, over-reacting and putting the man into an electrically-induced coma. Her anger stemmed from her long-mounted frustration, in combination with the fact that John was the only person in town with useful intel. Though, Cleary never considered what she would do once she had what she needed to know.
Using her mind, Cleary put her car on the auto-pilot function to drive her back home. When she had parked the blue station wagon into her mother’s driveway, she stayed in the vehicle to mentally compose herself. A calm state of mind was a necessity for Cleary, otherwise she received questioning stares. Questioning stares could evolve into actual questions from Prominents, which could evolve into visits from Staties, which would then evolve into her disappearance to a work camp.
Lately, Cleary’s upset state of mind could be measured in her eyes. Not in a poetic way like Your eyes are as beautiful as two shining stars, but in a physical manifestation from her latent ability. Cleary flipped down the visor to check her eyes, and of course, they were a brilliant shade of blue rather than their usual hazel. Her eyes would return to their normal color in a few hours, but Cleary didn’t feel like sitting in the car to wait it out. She put on a pair of dark sunglasses.
The car’s power indicator was in the red anyway. Cleary went to plug the battery in the outlet, giving an absent look at the sky. Today it was a dark purple. If the particles in the air hadn’t been clogged with harmful pathogens, the amethyst hue would have been an incredible sight. As it was, the beauty of the poison sky made her long for a Clean and Clear. Her mother needed one badly. Her cough was getting worse, hoarse with blood and phlegm.
A passing observation plane (or o-plane as the kids called them) overhead shook the leaves in the trees as it flew past. Two more o-planes followed, the screech of their ascent loud and insistent. When new people moved into the neighborhood, it took them months to become acclimated to the noise of the o-planes. Time passed, and people became numb to the noise, finally realizing why the housing rates were so cheap in the particular district. O-planes were a part of every citizen’s life, but they mostly stayed out of sight, out of mind. It was the combat mission planes (or c-planes) that made the most noise. C-planes had been flying out of the nearby base more often.
Two children passed by on their bikes. They didn’t wave, and neither did Cleary. It wasn’t a waving kind of neighborhood. One of the boys smiled at her. He had no front teeth, but it wasn’t a natural loss. Where his teeth had been, two brown spots remained. The boy’s appearance didn’t faze Cleary, though it had when she had first moved back. She had grown up in the area, and it had never seemed as bad as it did when she came back to it as an adult. The place hadn’t changed much; old tires and furniture in the streets, graffiti on the sidewalks, dead grass on every lawn. As the years had passed, the dilapidated conditions simply worsened, like a dead thing decaying.
As she walked on to the side of the house, Cleary saw her mother’s neighbor watching her and she mumbled under her breath the phrase, “sacra forda”. Her mother assured her it was a Latin phrase that translated to “holy pregnant cow”, but Cleary had never verified the claim. Like most of her mother’s phrases, she merely repeated them.
“Still driving that electric clap-trap from 2020, eh?” Harmon was locking up his car, a new truck with a 70-gallon gas tank.
If he spent more money on his home and less on Prominent toys, then his roof shingles wouldn’t be hanging off and his driveway wouldn’t split. Cleary mentioned none of this when she answered Harmon.
“Yup. It’s easy to keep a car for forty plus years when it doesn’t need gasoline.” Cleary’s car had belonged to her mother when she had been a teenager.
Harmon was undeterred by Cleary’s dig since he had a few of his own to voice. “Well, I don’t need to tell you how you’re hurtin’ the oil industry, costin’ people their jobs.”
Old Harmon ranted about his Prominent talking points to anyone who would be unfortunate enough to listen. He was more annoying when he repeated his points, over and over, as if reiteration would make them factual.
Instead of ignoring him, or agreeing with him as most of her neighbors did, Cleary told him, “And your car’s ruining the planet. Of the both of us, I think I’m gonna sleep better tonight.”
Harmon squinted at her against the glare of the orange sun. After a moment, he smiled, though he it seemed to pain him.
“You sure have a silver tongue.”
She had another response ready, but it wouldn’t have done any good. In her mind, Cleary saw herself removing her glasses, showing off her unnatural eyes, and scaring the shit out of Harmon with a good light show. She could have fried his heart easily, and she thought about it.
In the end, Cleary didn’t bother with a reply.
Before she got to the front door, she heard Harmon say to her back, “Goddamn Tramp hippies.”