“The Blood Hustle” by Alice Hatcher

Most people would agree that, if a thirty-year-old woman is selling her own blood in a seedy highway motel in Tucson, just to chip away at the interest on student loans she took out for a General Studies degree, she’s probably made some bad choices. I’ll admit, I made some bad choices, but they had nothing to do with getting a General Studies degree or selling blood. Even when I was sitting on a sagging bed at the Stardust Motel, sucking down second-hand smoke while blood destined for the black market in antibodies and recycled drugs drained from my arm, I never thought my education was a waste. As my dad used to say—even after he lost his medical license—no one can take away a person’s education. And, if I sold blood well in excess of Red Cross recommendations for donors and suffered occasional episodes of tachycardia, my choices made sense. With the money I made selling blood, I paid off the interest on my student loans almost as quickly as it accrued, carried a mortgage, and made every payment on the pre-owned Camry I used for Uber, Instacart, and JackRabbit gigs. Bank of America should have given me a gold medal.

The people making bad choices are the ones who sell plasma to corporate chains like Vita Biologicals, the company that runs ads featuring people hugging above the caption “Join the Vita Family and Save a Life” and offers a vanilla crème cookie to every “ordinary hero” siphoned at one of its collection centers. Vita’s ‘social relationship marketing’ and ‘values-based branding’ are strictly textbook—the professor who taught my Consumer Sciences class at the University of Arizona actually used Vita Biologicals as a case study—and they’re a complete joke. The vanilla crème cookies with the scalloped edges cost $2.39 for a pack of forty-eight at Food City. That fuzzy feeling of being appreciated for doing the right thing won’t pay the bills. If the CEO of Vita Biologicals isn’t inviting you over for Thanksgiving, he’s not family. Vita Biologicals is traded on the NASDAQ and has a market cap of 1.2 billion dollars because it buys plasma at rock-bottom prices and sells it at a 500% mark-up. I got paid almost full market value at the Stardust Motel. That’s why I went there. Besides, junkies make the best phlebotomists.

Admittedly, there are exceptions. So much depends on the distractions and dopamine levels at work on the brain of the person doing the blood draw. The day I now consider the beginning of the end, Amber was an obvious exception. She seemed agitated from the minute I walked into Room 208. She kept muttering about the TV’s spotty reception and the clutter on the nightstand as she searched for her lighter. She lit a cigarette while another was still burning in the overflowing ashtray. She could barely keep her hands steady when she knotted a worn tourniquet around my arm and slid a needle from its plastic sleeve. In hindsight, I should have cut my losses and left, but I’d invested fifteen minutes driving to the Stardust, so I kept my arm upturned and tried to focus on the traces of a tattoo—“Javier” in cursive script—lasered from Amber’s wrist two months earlier.

If Amber had erased her ex from her wrist, she hadn’t mentally kicked him to the curb. She’d been palpating my arm for three minutes when she started going off about Javier’s new car, his pregnant and paranoid girlfriend, and a missed child-support payment, returning again and again to the girlfriend and growing more and more upset until I had to hit pause on the draw.

“Do you want to try the other arm?” I asked, shifting on the edge of the bed.

The muscles in Amber’s jaw twitched. “Nothing’s popping.” She gathered her cigarette from the ashtray on the nightstand and took a long drag. “Anyway, that lying sack of shit keeps telling me I must have lost his check. It’s bullshit. I’m peeling eviction notices off the door, and he’s driving around in a brand-new Mustang and having another kid with some piece of trash.”

She pressed her thumb to my inner arm, and I tensed. Every minute she spent searching for a vein was one minute less I could use for JackRabbit gigs. “Do you need a minute or two to get your—”

“April, I’ve got my shit together. I’m not the one who needs to get my shit together.” Amber set her cigarette on the ashtray’s edge. With smoke trailing from her nostrils, she traced the path of my cephalic vein with the tip of her thumb. “If my lawyer or the principal at my kids’ school had their shit together, I could do my job.”

The thing is, I knew she could. Amber was a professional. Just when it seemed her rage might spill over, she focused her thoughts with a short mantra she’d learned in rehab, took a deep breath, and, in a fluid motion, slid the needle beneath my skin and slipped the tourniquet from my arm.

Once my blood started flowing into the collection bag, I started to relax. “I wasn’t trying to criticize. I’m just tired, and I need to pick up a few more gigs and get to the hospital for the sleep study by eight.”

“I can’t believe you get paid to sleep.” She hung the collection bag from the handle of a nightstand drawer. “Beats working for a living.”

“You could probably be a subject. It pays well.”

She narrowed her eyes and fished the TV remote from a tangle of sheets. “And do what with my kids? My mom can’t be with them all the time.” She crawled over my legs and settled back against the headboard, with her ashtray on her lap. “Check this shit. Today’s been covering this story all week. This little girl’s running a lemonade stand to help pay for her mother’s chemo. She’s seven, and she’s raised eight-hundred bucks. My ex could learn something from her.”

Her mood was slipping quickly, so I pulled out my phone and opened the JackRabbit app. I’d just accepted a “light yardwork” gig in a Del Webb development when she spoke again.

“I’m thinking about selling my eggs.” She surfed through a succession of cooking shows and settled on The View. “You said you made a lot of money doing that.”

“It helped me pay for my house.”

“My mom was trying to talk me out of it, but she’s just hung up. People give women shit for it. Like they’re giving their kids up.” Amber ground out her cigarette and blew a stream of smoke at the ceiling. “If guys can toss their spunk in a jar without getting the third degree, why shouldn’t I get paid to help out some couple?”

“It took me a few days to recover after they harvested my eggs,” I said, staring at the TV to avoid looking at Amber. “You’ll lose income on those days. And all the days you have to go to screenings and doctor’s appointments. It’s grueling. If there are complications, you might end up paying for your own medical care.” I must have been dizzy from the draw, but I probably went too far when I added, “When you factor in the taxes on miscellaneous income, the opportunity cost of donating eggs is pretty high. I wouldn’t do it. If I were you.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I mean you’ll lose money to make money.”

“I’ll still come out ahead.” Amber re-lit a half-smoked cigarette fished from the ashtray. “Way ahead.”

I set my phone on the nightstand, beside the tourniquet and a beer bottle. “You know you’ll need to do a urine test, right?”

“You don’t think I can kick it, do you?”

“I’m just saying.”

“I’m not always high, April. I’m not high right now.” Amber tapped her cigarette on the edge of the ashtray like she wanted to snap it in half. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll just buy someone’s urine. Hell, I’ll buy yours. You’re a fucking Girl Scout.” I pretended to study a burn hole in the lampshade to buy time, and she grew agitated. “I’ve got three kids. You don’t think I’d do it for them?”

“I never said that.” I glanced at Amber. In the dusty light passing between the parted drapes, I could see every fleck of dried skin clinging to her bottom lip. “Anyway, I’m part of a drug trial right now. I have no idea what would show up in a drop.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“It’s some Department of Defense thing. Part of that sleep study at the hospital. Every week they give me pills that are supposed to boost sleep efficiency and performance. There could be trace amounts of something weird in my urine.”

Amber folded her arms across her chest with her cigarette pressed between her fingers, and I worried she’d set a pillow on fire. “If it hasn’t hit the street yet, it won’t be something they screen for.”

“There’s no way to be sure. I don’t know what’s in these pills.”

“Half the time they give people sugar pills. You know, to see if people have a psychosomatic reaction or something.”

“I have no idea if I’m taking a placebo or the real thing.” I massaged a plastic tube between my thumb and finger, as if I could speed up the draw. “I haven’t felt that different since I started, but there might be traces of something in my system.”

Amber picked at a callus on her thumb and changed the channel. “If you don’t want to help, fine, but it’s like you’re trying to talk me out of it.”

“It’s harder than you think,” I said, watching a celebrity chef fold melted caramel into cake batter. “You’ll need a complete physical. They do genetic screening. Psych evals. They’ll ask all sorts of questions.” I eyed a shred of blackened cotton on the nightstand. “About your drug history.”

“I could go to Dr. K. He’ll buy them.”

“I doubt he harvests eggs. People don’t buy eggs on the black market. They want to see papers. Know where someone went to college. What color their hair is.”

Amber brushed a piece of ash from her thigh. “You don’t think I’m good enough.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to.” She dragged her teeth across her bottom lip and changed the channel to watch a news report on the threat of rising sea levels to the Venice Film Festival.

For the next fifteen minutes, I sat in silence, watching my blood seep into the collection bag. “It’s full,” I said, when the bag was engorged. I took the ashtray from Amber’s lap and set it on the nightstand, so Amber could crawl to the edge of the bed.

“Give me your arm,” she said, rubbing her forehead like she was trying to erase a troubling thought from her mind. She finally flexed her hand to quiet a tremor and slid the needle from beneath my skin. As she reached for a Band-Aid, blood welled from the tip of the needle and onto the bedspread.

“Just deal with the stain,” I said, over Amber’s cursing. “I’ll get the bag ready.”

Cradling the collection bag in my arm, I watched Amber drag the bedspread into the bathroom and wrestle it into the tub. While she fanned water over the stain, I drew a Sharpie from the nightstand drawer and wrote my nine-digit account number on the collection bag. There was nothing I could to do to rush Amber without creating another scene, so I set the bag on the bed and repeated to myself, over and over, that whatever was going wrong, I was paying down the interest on my student loan, one drop, and one dollar, at a time.

When Amber emerged from the bathroom, she wiped her hands on her shorts. “You’re pale.” She gathered a roll of Smarties from the dresser and pressed it into my hand. “You need to get your blood sugar up,” she said, gathering the bag from the bed and checking its label while I split open a cellophane sleeve and funneled fifteen pastel pep pills down my throat.

Outside, on the breezeway, I leaned against a rifled vending machine for balance and watched Amber open the dented steel doors of a Reddi Ice machine.

“The guy’s doing the pick-up in two hours. You’ll see the credit in your account by this afternoon,” Amber said, setting the collection bag next to a dozen other plastic pouches nestled on a bed of half-melted ice cubes.

“Are we cool?” I asked.

“You and me?” She shrugged and closed the ice chest. “We’re practically cold.”

Right then, I should have done some damage control and apologized to her, but I figured she was getting a healthy commission for every draw she performed, and I was her steadiest supplier. She had every incentive to set aside whatever resentment I’d stoked. She was, in fact, a professional.

That’s why I wasn’t worried when she stumbled back to Room 208 without locking the ice chest. If the vending machine had been rifled for change and stale candy a million times, no one had ever messed with the collection bags. Almost everyone at the Stardust was making rent by selling the antibodies developed during different pandemics, and everyone had a stake in keeping the contents of the ice chest safe. Besides, it’s not easy to fence blood. The only person buying blood in Tucson was the guy who picked up the bags for a distillery in California. Amber knew that. Still, her fumbling had cost me twenty minutes, and I couldn’t help thinking the day had spiraled out of control. In my car, I tried to get back on track by downing five iron pills with a shot of WhiteLine trucker’s speed, thinking back to an online honor’s seminar on seventh-wave post-feminism, and telling myself that every situation presents limitless opportunities to recast expectations and re-imagine reality—opportunities for personal growth and individual empowerment.

The challenge—the opportunity—that day was to make up for lost time by “upselling and cross-selling to maximize revenue streams at every point of sale,” to quote the Econ professor who taught The Psychology of Nonessential Consumption. Upselling and cross-selling was the core of my business philosophy. Back then, time spent driving to JackRabbit gigs was dead time, so I always tried to parlay any gig advertised on the app into several jobs. The task I accepted on the JackRabbit app just got me in the door. Once I crossed the threshold, the goal was to make my clients aware of needs, wants, and insecurities they didn’t know they had.

It didn’t take much. Anyone who’s taken Intro to Primate Communication knows that fear of ostracism by the troop, pack, or clique is an overpowering motivation for mammals. New York advertising firms have convinced millions of people that bad breath is the root cause of unemployment, and that people with excess belly fat will die alone. I just took a page from corporate America. If I was building Ikea shelves for a middle-aged woman who mentioned she was having dinner guests that evening, I’d glance into her kitchen, and, with a barely raised eyebrow, induce something close to panic. She would follow my gaze and, overcome by self-consciousness, notice the smudges on her windows and the coffee grounds on her counter. Taking care to avoid anything resembling a chimp threat display, I’d smile and say the magic words: “I can help.”

Call it paid emotional labor. If I conveyed enough sympathy, she would complain about her “friends’ unreasonable expectations” and ask if I had “an hour or two to do a few odds and ends.” I’d gently discourage her from “wasting her precious time and money” running things through a “clunky app,” and 8 out of 10 times, I’d end up mopping floors and polishing silverware at a price negotiated off the books. I avoided paying a commission to JackRabbit, the client dodged hefty service fees, and we both came out ahead.

With all the skills I had acquired watching YouTube, I could spot opportunities for upselling and cross-selling in almost any situation. There’s no end to what people will outsource to strangers. Without being bonded or insured, I’ve replaced flush mechanisms in running toilets, repaired brakes on motorcycles, and removed asbestos tiles from closets. Once, painting a baby’s room eggshell blue, I noted a streak of black char above the outlet beside the crib and offered to replace some faulty wiring. I knew I had the skills, but my client didn’t know that. She only needed to see my pursed lips before she asked about my hourly rates and explained, “there’s so much to keep track of with a newborn.” Anxious and ashamed people will settle on almost any price. If upselling or working off the books wasn’t entirely legit by JackRabbit’s “Terms of Compensation for Independent Contractors,” I wasn’t stealing. My upselling was the equivalent of supersizing at McDonald’s, and I was the one sweating over the deep fryer.

* * *

From the standpoint of upselling and everything else, the “light yardwork” gig in Dove Mountain Estates was a disaster. The light yard work wasn’t light, and it had nothing to do with a yard. The gig involved draining a festering koi pond, a malarial fish stew off-gassing in the corner of a walled patio. Thanks to an electrical short in the submersible pump, nine fish had been rotting in the stagnant pond for six weeks, while my client, Lindsay L, summered in Cincinnati. I should have run the minute I saw the bloated fish floating at the base of a small electric waterfall. The fact is, I couldn’t afford a ‘limp carrot’ review on JackRabbit.

“It’s disgusting.” Lindsay L shook her head and toed a fan of decorative grass withering at the pond’s edge. “The whole thing needs to be drained and scoured, and the pump needs to be removed and tossed straight in the garbage.” She took a sip of iced tea from a slender glass. “Our neighbor agreed to feed them while we were away. Then he died of an aneurism. No one called to let us know, so we didn’t hear for weeks. I guess the water stagnated.”

I stepped up to the pond and stiffened at sight of bloated red koi covered in black mold and a carpet of mosquito larvae nursing on algae blooms. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I offered, keeping my voice neutral. Too many people look to JackRabbits for free therapy, unloading sordid and disturbing stories of every kind on people hired to assemble particleboard furniture and install garbage disposals.

“The whole thing’s ruined,” Lindsay L said. “Those koi cost thousands of dollars.”

I turned from the pond and considered an orange five-gallon bucket with latex gloves draped over its rim, a roll of black garbage bags, a mop, and a plastic jug of Toxxout. “Where do you keep your hand pump?”

“We don’t own one. You can use the bucket to dump the water in the alley.” Lindsay L pointed to an open gate. “The fish and any debris can go straight to the trash, with the pump. The main thing is to scour everything after it’s drained.”

I turned back to the pond and found myself staring at the splayed limbs of two dead frogs floating belly-up beside a blackened lily pad.

“Don’t worry about the mosquito larvae.” Lindsay L peeled a sprig of mint from her bottom lip. “I haven’t had time to buy any bleach, but I dumped a bottle of Windex in the water and sprayed everything with Raid, so it should be safe. It’s all dead.”

Between the insecticide fumes, the afternoon heat, the dizziness following the blood draw, and the reek of fish excrement and dead frogs, I barely heard anything else Lindsay L said before she went inside. Alone, I pulled the latex gloves over my hands, suppressed every thought of miasmas and mosquito eggs, and got to work. Over the next four hours, I combed the pond’s surface with my fingers and filled three garbage bags with algae strands and lily pads, and, feeling like I might pass out, nine bloated fish and two frogs. The gloves were too thin to dull the sensation of scales sliding between my fingers as fish slipped from my hands into plastic bags. With the sun pounding on my back, I grew slightly delirious and made a rookie mistake of overfilling the last bag. Its seams split just outside the gate, and I ended up kneeling in the alley, gathering up fish and frogs and tossing them, one by one, into a massive garbage bin overloaded with pond scum, discarded clothes, and oily takeout containers, while disintegrating latex fingers split off my gloves.

Crazily, I hadn’t packed any dishwashing gloves in the JackRabbit ‘field kit’ in my trunk, so I finished the job with bare hands, bailing insecticidal sewage and hauling the strained plastic bucket to the alley over thirty times. By the time I mopped the pond’s floor, it was late afternoon, and my entire body was sore. I should have taken a break before I drew the flathead screwdriver from my multi-tool and crouched beside the defective pump, but I just wanted to finish the job. When I slipped, I went down so quickly I must have gone into mild shock. I felt the first flush of pain only when I saw the blood tipping my screwdriver and welling at the edges of a gash in my right forearm. I spent several minutes staring at my hands, indifferent to the water soaking my shorts, before I gained enough composure to flex my fingers and rotate my wrist to test my tendons and ligaments. I was oddly calm when I struggled to my feet. Even with blood snaking down my arm, I kept thinking, “I haven’t broken anything, at least.” I thought, “I can finish this job.”

I didn’t have much choice. JackRabbits who abort jobs don’t collect a dime, so I grabbed the jug of Toxxout, and, dismissing a pictogram of human lungs framed by a red diamond, doused the pond’s floor with ethanochloride and knelt down on a bed of sludge with a scrub brush in my hand.

It was nearly five when I crawled from the pond, wiped my hand on my shirt, and knocked on Lindsay L’s sliding glass door. Inside, Lindsay L was sprawled on a leather sectional couch in front of a television, staring at a StoxWatch ticker running beneath an informercial.

“I’m finished,” I said, shivering in the air-conditioning that poured from the house when she opened the door. “Would you mind if I borrowed a few paper towels?”

She considered my wet pants and stained shirt, disappeared into her kitchen, and returned with a nearly exhausted roll. As I scraped muck from my palms, she stepped onto the patio to appraise the pond. When she turned to me, she noticed the blood crusted on my arm and paled. I could already see the ‘limp carrot’ rating beside my JackRabbit profile.

“There’s a hose on the side of the house.” She folded her arms over her chest, and her lip curled away from a white incisor. “So you can clean up. Your arm.”

The snarl was a classic primate dominance display. I’d lost control of the exchange, and the gig’s opportunity costs had been staggering. I had exhausted myself and spent four hours making $38 dollars. Bruises were forming down the side of my right arm and leg, and my hands were shaking as I spread two garbage bags over my car seat so I wouldn’t get Toxxout in the upholstery. My fingers had stiffened so badly I could barely guide the key into the ignition. My feet had swelled so much I hardly felt the brake pedal as I wound through Dove Mountain Estates and past the massive marble slab at its main entrance. A half-mile down the road, I skidded to a halt on the gravel shoulder and pulled up the GoZen app on my phone.

Maybe it had something to do with expectation bias, but I started to feel centered even before I tapped the small pink lotus on my screen. I closed my eyes, let a current of air-conditioning wash over me, and focused all my attention on the soothing voice guiding the day’s ten-second visualization exercise: “Picture an orange, freshly picked from a tree. Now, take a deep breath. Without judgement, imagine the texture of the orange. Exhale. Now, let go of the orange.”

Whatever people say about the Sedona Wellness Technology Institute, their GoZen meditations have coaxed me from the edge of the cliff more than a few times. When I opened my eyes, I felt almost calm gazing down at the Tucson sprawl beyond a shimmer of heat convection and haze. Despite the mold and rot drying on my shirt, I felt a sense of possibility, and a hope that everything was going in the right direction. In fact, if there’s a moment I wish I could live over again, not to change, but to savor, it’s that moment I looked down at Tucson and imagined my house somewhere in the sprawl, beneath the contrails of commercial jets and military transports circling the airport, and told myself that I had a small foothold in the world, and that, if I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, something would break in my favor.

* * *

My small foothold in the world—my rental house—was an investor’s dream from the beginning, when I traded thirty-two college-educated eggs for a decrepit cash cow on a lot overrun with buffelgrass and subscribed to a home improvement channel on YouTube. I was lucky to find an affordable house before Californian climate refugees flooded Tucson and drove rents through the roof, and I was grateful to have a roof—or most of a roof—over my head. The roof on the west side of the house was caving in, so I cordoned off one of the two bedrooms with yellow tape and focused my rehab efforts on the remaining space. I rewired the kitchen, replaced broken panes of glass, and patched most of the holes in most of the walls. I painted over swathes of gang graffiti in the carport. I installed a toilet. I tore up filthy carpet and scraped every spot of glue and paint from the concrete slab. I installed a dead bolt on the door of the second bedroom so I could store trash-picked light fixtures and furniture in the hopes of someday buying a bigger house in a better neighborhood.

I lived in the shed—a studio-laundry—at the back of the carport. It had a steel-grated window, an evaporative cooling unit, and a half-bath consisting of a utility sink and toilet. It had a surplus army cot and a crate & barrel aesthetic; I had a plastic milkcrate for a dresser and a five-gallon bucket for a kitchen table. If my quarters were cramped, I made decent money renting the habitable space in the main house on Flophaus, the rental app started by a Berlin squatter. Flophaus had its problems—mainly its reputation—but it accepted all major cryptocurrencies and provided flexible terms to homeowners renting space by the hour, day, or week. I could advertise my living room as a bedroom with an en suite bathroom, even though the bathroom was down the hall and the showerhead was attached to a garden hose dangling through a hole in the ceiling above the tub. I could advertise two twin mattresses as a California King, since Flophaus profiles only noted “aggregate mattress size.” By the terms of Flophaus, my microwave and folding chair constituted a kitchen/dinette. I could sell clients on outdoor/patio access because I had a back door with a cinderblock for a stoop.

No one complained. Few of my clients could have fulfilled Airbnb’s terms of service by providing a state-issued photo ID or passing a criminal background check. If I lacked a respectable clientele, I made bank through volume, especially since Flophaus got a lot of redirects from SlakAss and Outsource. Even though my customers had every reason not to complain, I did my best to make my house presentable. A few hours after I crawled out of the fishpond, with clients scheduled to arrive sometime that evening, I recycled the empty beer cans lying on the floor and flushed the toilet. I threw out a pair of underwear the last renters had draped over a doorknob and peeled a soiled band-aid from the counter. I cleaned the tub while taking a shower, letting the runoff from my body wash strangers’ footprints and bits of cigarette ash down the drain.

I should have been careful to disinfect my arm, but I wasn’t thinking about anything but getting to the sleep study on time when I stumbled outside to find three acne-ridden guys and a beat-up utility van with Arkansas plates in front of my house. Two of the guys looked at the ground when they saw me.

“Hey,” I said, nodding to the guy reaching for the keypad lock next to my front door.

He drew his hand away from the lock and dragged his palm across the back of his neck. “What’s up?”

If I were renting on Airbnb, I might have asked him about the weather in Arkansas, but I was renting on Flophaus, where ‘Privacy is Paramount.’

“I live in the apartment at the back of the car port. It’s got its own entrance, so you won’t see me again.” Without another word, I climbed into my car and pulled out of the driveway, past the two guys staring at the buffelgrass growing next to my mailbox.

It was probably a good thing I could barely keep my eyes open by the time I parked behind University Medical Research Center, in a spot reserved for test subjects, checked in at Psych Unit’s security desk, and collected a badge printed with a barcode and “Sleep Dep—Cog/Motor Impair.” My continued participation in the paid study was contingent on my ability to log at least 90 minutes of REM sleep every Tuesday and Wednesday. On Tuesdays, I’d slip into a set of pink fleece pajamas provided by the Department of Defense, and Dev, a Neuropsych resident, would abrade my scalp with an emery board and glue electrodes to my skin. After e-signing a thirty-page disclaimer, I’d swallow two white pills and undergo a blood draw. Then, Dev would dim the lights, I’d sniff some lavender oil, and, to the sound of ambient space music, I’d settle onto a memory foam mattress for eight solid hours of sleep. In the morning, I’d play a game of computer chess against an avatar named Yuri.

Wednesdays were more of a challenge. On Wednesdays, Dev disrupted my ‘normal’ sleep with ‘sensory enhancements.’ After gluing electrodes to my head, dispensing two white pills, and drawing three vials of blood, he’d flood the room with fluorescent light. For three hours, I’d watch horror movies while sprinting on a treadmill, or drink corn syrup and jump rope to audio recordings of car accidents and gun shots. Between midnight and eight, I’d alternate between ten-minute power naps interrupted by fire alarms and twenty-minute stints solving algebra problems. Then, before leaving the hospital, I’d complete a survey about homicidal ideations and spend an hour free-associating to prompt words like ‘assault’ and ‘disgust’ with a psychiatrist specializing in dissociative disorders.

All things considered, the money was good. Once I got the routines and questions down, I could do everything in my sleep, almost literally. For all the money I was making, though, I was losing a lot of hair. For two years, Dev had been abrading my scalp and spreading something that smelled like CrazyGlue on my skin wherever he attached an electrode, and my hair had begun to thin in places. That Tuesday, Dev seemed distracted and ended up being especially rough with the file.

“I never ate lunch. Or dinner,” he explained, leaning forward on his stool to examine a patch of raw skin. “I’ve been helping out in the ER all day. We’ve been slammed. Gunshot wounds. Overdoses. Dehydrated migrants Border Patrol dumped off in the parking lot. The hospital’s at capacity, and we can barely keep up.” Dev pressed the last electrode to my head and nodded at the bruises darkening my wrist. “What happened there?”

“Just an accident at work. I slipped and fell on a screwdriver a few hours ago.”

“Have you had it looked at?”

I splayed my fingers and rotated my hand. “It doesn’t seem broken or sprained.”

“Even if nothing’s broken, it could still—”

“It’s a contusion near the styloid process. Nothing’s dislocated, based on my range of motion.” I heard the edge in my voice and paused. “My dad was a doctor,” I explained, after a moment. “An orthopedic. I used to go with him on rounds.”

“You never mentioned that,” Dev said, rising from the stool. “In Tucson?”

“Chicago.”

“Is he still in practice?”

“He’s in the ground. Dead.” I don’t know why I said it so coldly or shrugged when Dev apologized for my loss. “It’s not your fault. He overdosed on painkillers ten years ago.”

He turned to a mounted sink and slowly washed his hands. “Can I get you an ice pack?” he finally asked, without looking at me. When I shook my head, he dimmed the lights and left the room without a word.

Alone, I pulled up my sleeve and used my fingertips to examine my forearm and hand. I curled and straightened my fingers to test my flexor and extensor tendons. I pushed against the side of my smallest finger to test the integrity of my collateral ligaments. I massaged my wrist and different points of articulation, imagining a composite of carpal bones. There was a prominence of soft tissues at the ulnar styloid process, but the bones, as my dad would have said, were in normal anatomic alignment. There was no acute joint abnormality. I massaged the top of my hand, felt my skin sliding over knuckles, and whispered that I only had a contusion or, at worst, a hairline fracture.

To the opening track of Isotank Dreams, I closed my eyes, fingered an electrode glued to my temple, and wondered how much longer I could participate in the study before the scar tissue on my scalp hardened and it became impossible to disguise my tiny bald patches with a tight pony tail. I wondered, too, how much longer I could keep up a profitable pace as a JackRabbit. I didn’t feel demoralized, though. Maybe an incipient infection was already affecting my thoughts, but, as I drifted off, I felt like I was lucid dreaming, rising on dark swells to dizzying heights, more elated than afraid looking out across a choppy sea covered in nets of plastic tubing. I had been losing blood all day, and I was probably just oxygen-deprived, experiencing the rush of bleeding out, the racing of a heart driven by the logic of a body at odds with itself, straining to deliver blood to dying tissues, only to speed its own hemorrhage.

At some point, I fell asleep beneath the pinpoints of light on the EEG monitor, only to wake up, sometime around 3 a.m., from a nightmare about trying to sterilize rusty surgical scissors in the makeshift autoclave of my Instapot. Though I couldn’t have known it at the time, Chuck was six floors below me, getting his chest paddled in the ER. People later remarked on the long odds of such a ‘coincidence,’ as if I sought out Chuck with a plan to upsell and exploit him—as if I singled him out to victimize him. The odds that Chuck and I would be at the hospital at the same time were no longer than anyone’s odds of running into a neighbor at a grocery store the day before Thanksgiving. Everyone is sick these days. Sickness is a growth industry.


Alice Hatcher’s debut novel The Wonder That Was Ours (Dzanc, 2018) won Dzanc Books’s Annual Prize for Fiction and made the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Award long list. She has published short stories and essays in numerous journals, including The Masters Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Alaska Quarterly ReviewPleiadesEllery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Fourth Genre. In addition to receiving an honorable mention in the 2020 Pushcart Anthology, she has been a finalist in ten national short story competitions. She is currently seeking representation. More about Hatcher can be found at www.alice-hatcher.com

 

 

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