This story is by Sunnye Collins and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
She stands in the corner of the waiting room. Always next to the sad little Ficus. It needs water. She needs water. Just the two of them standing there pitiful and neglected and thirsty. She cannot sit in the plastic chairs. The volatile off-gassing makes her head spin. So toxic – she couldn’t possibly. To quell her chronic sense of impending doom, she edges closer to the Ficus, leans in casually toward the branches, and inhales.
No matter how many times she comes here and no matter how many others are there, the wait is always the same, which is just enough time for her to consider her life and arrive at the same terminal feeling: shame. If she had been content with herself, she would never have been lonely. If she hadn’t been lonely, she wouldn’t have manifested a relationship with that delusional dunderhead, Uranus. Why on earth did they have any offspring, moreover twelve of them? If he hadn’t been so abusive to all of them, well, she may not have been so rash in the way she got rid of him. And if that hadn’t happened then maybe she wouldn’t be standing here all alone in a manufactured space sniffing sad plants and drowning in disease and regret.
Like a bored elephant she shifts and sways. Her loosely braided fingers hang by default in front of her southerly regions as if to protect herself from her own iciness. After brushing up against the Ficus two dozen times, a few leaves plunge to the cylinder of faded soil below. Others alight on the beige berber carpet with no hope of contributing to any kind of circle of life. They’ll be relegated to the dust toupee of the carpet for the next 20,000 or so years.
As usual, everything hurts. She’s had heartburn since birth. Her hundred-year-old hot flashes with complimentary spells of chills. IBS. Incontinence. Flatulence. It hurts when she coughs, which is often. Every time she sneezes, which is daily due to her year-round allergies, she’s sure her heart will stop for the last time. Vertigo, well, labyrinthitis if she’s being honest. Indigestion. Fibromyalgia. Shortness of breath. She’s nearly certain there are plastic bits in her fluids, which is why she brought a sample to show the doctor. Sepsis for sure. Clonic seizures. Overall organ dysfunction. In a very large tumorous nutshell, she is dying. But today, she’s here about the rash.
“The doctor will see you now.”
She looks up mid-regret, making fleeting eye contact with the thing at reception. She holds her breath and walks past the mine field of plastic furniture. Nurse Walter stands at the doorway of the exam room. She could tolerate this one. He was kind and funny. He called her Geegee, which always made her suppress a smile.
“Well, hello Ms. Geegee. You are looking brilliant in blue today!”
“Hi Walter. I always wear blue.” She hands him a mason jar of yellow liquid with unidentified multi-colored floaters.
“Oh, for me? Why thank you.” He sets it down on the reception counter. “Shall we step on the scale first?”
“No Walter. We shall not. We all know that We never gain or lose.”
“But it’s just…”
“No.” And with this decree, she enters the exam room and waits. Walter, unfazed, follows behind. He studies his clipboard, checks something off, and takes a breath.
“And why are we here today, Ms. Geegee?”
She locks in on Walter, huffs, and tries to count to 10. She gets to 2.
“Walter. Can we skip this? Can I just wait for Dr. Heka?”
He scrounges one last smile before his about-face. Again, she sways and looks around the room. A feline in a tree encouraging her to hang in there for the millionth time. She wonders if just below and out of frame that adorable kitty is trying not to fall into a bucket of water with the rest of her deceased siblings. Jars of invasive swabs. The paper-lined exam table overexposed by the fluorescent light. The always-dripping sink: water must grow on trees around here. Another sad plant too large for its pot and too dried up to care. She lifts the plant as if holding a fat baby, and gently places it under the leaky faucet. Symbiosis, or something like that.
The door opens. Dr. Heka enters. She is tall and twiggy and Egyptian with a gravity-straight black bob. “Ms. Pachamama! So nice to see you again.”
She turns as if caught in the act of saving yet another life. Her eyes narrow. “Is it?”
Dr. Heka ignores the usual obstreperousness. “Thank you for watering the plant. We do need to get that sink fixed.”
“So you say.”
“How can I help you?”
“I think the rash is spreading. It’s all over me.”
Dr. Heka pauses to steel her bedside manner. “Ah, which one?”
She feels volcanic. “You. Know. The One.”
“Ok, take some deep breaths for me. I have a lot of patients. Refresh my memory.”
“The first one. I’m dying. I probably need an operation.”
She and Dr. Heka have an old relationship. The doctor was patient with her weekly visits over the millennia. Her file was biblical. And she figured the more she came, the harder it was for Dr. Heka to suss out the real threats, but this was a compulsion. After several minutes of negotiation, she is convinced to recline on the exam table. Using a dermatoscope, Dr. Heka examines her skin, paying close attention to the areas of brown and green in her mid-section. Engaging her stethoscope, Heka closes her eyes and searches for the audible indicators. There is the tell-tale, erratic but incessant mechanical hums. She moves over to the blue areas – the sound is there as well.
“You feel it, don’t you?” Ms. Pachamama’s heart pounds and her breathing shallows.
She maintains her patient-facing calm. “I do. When did you first notice this? Because last week we focused on…”
“My dyspepsia. I don’t know. Maybe 10,000 years ago?”
Dr. Heka flips through her file. Her eyes get big. “Hmm. That was round about the time you started coming to me.”
“Like I said, I think this is same rash. The first one. I just don’t understand why I didn’t notice how quickly it had evolved.”
Dr. Heka takes Ms. Pachamama’s hand and addresses her by her first name. “Gaia. Listen, with everything you’ve come in here for over the eons, we seemed to have taken our eyes off the root of the problem. There is extensive damage in both of your hemispheres. It’s particularly concentrated in areas where your crust is exposed, but it is affecting your water bodies as well.”
Gaia is initially perplexed; how could a little rash be linked to everything else that was wrong with her?
Heka treads lightly. “I just wonder if it’s been the cause of a lot of these other ‘conditions’ you seem to be suffering from.”
Gaia’s feels a heat rising in her core. “I’m sorry, why are you using air quotes?”
“Well, I mean. You don’t have bipolar disorder. You just are bipolar. In the same way you don’t suffer from hot flashes, flatulence, and incontinence. You just are volcanic, seismic, and tidal. It’s part of your planetary make-up. It’s who you are. But this humatoid rash is likely causing an increased frequency and intensity of all these things. It needs to be…remediated. It’s out of control.”
Gaia feels like she’s having an out-of-celestial-body experience. She’s not used to being right. Dr. Heka walks her through the procedure. Something about a new laser treatment, more focused, less damaging to her other systems. The odds for her survival were high, but recovery would take time. Dr. Heka says that she needs to undergo the operation as soon as possible.
“Is there someone you can call?”
Gaia thinks for a moment. “No, it’s just me. I can take care of myself.”
In no time, she’s prepped and ready for the procedure. She’s barely had time to consider what life will be like without this rash. What will it feel like to be well? To simply rotate and orbit? To just… be?
“Ok Ms. Geegee, I need you to count backwards from 10.”
“Ok. What if that’s not enough numbers?”
Walter takes her hand. “I’ll count with you.”
She relents. “Ok.”
“Here we go… 10…”