“This Is the Thing” by Chloie Piveral

“This Is the Thing” by Chloie Piveral

In the deep dark, a respirator kicks on. It whispers, let me go, let me go, let me go, in a long hushing exhale.

I’m alive. Always alive. I know because sometimes, some times, so me times…It’s a glitch in my system, a stuttering of my thought process.

I’m alive because sometimes, when I’m so deep that I can’t be bothered to breathe on my own, I’m pulled back by their interventions, their drugs, their respirators.

When I surface I feel the residual log of activities they’ve put my body through in my absence. It echoes like the emptiness here in these halls.

When I come back, I watch them. I have no choice.

Ronnie sits in white nurse scrubs, hunched over the main desk under a cone of light. The other worker is named Todd, or Jamie. Or maybe it’s two guys and they look alike. Or maybe it’s been months since they were able to force me back, and Todd replaced Jamie.

Anyway, he’s a huge guy with broad shoulders and an angry jaw line. He starts every sentence with the phrase, “Okay, so here’s the deal.”

I watch Ronnie, never looking up from his paperwork, rhythmically nodding his head to convince Todd he’s listening. He’s not listening. I’m long gone, but even from my wheelchair, sitting in the dim hallway across from the workstation, I can tell he’s not listening. Ronnie has to get the paperwork done.

He calls it his “endless fucking paperwork.”

This pair is my third generation of caretakers. I’m lucky, that’s what they told me the first time I was committed. I came from a wealthy family with an interest in my rehab, or at least, by the fourth and last time I was committed, interest in keeping me alive.

I’m a trust-fund recovery. There are ten, or a hundred, or twenty, or four of us here in ward twenty-six of the Downtown Metropolitan Mid-Heartland Treatment facility. We’re top floor. We’re big bucks. We’re the gravy train.

I remember. Sometimes I remember. Sometimes I re member what I lived before; the colors of the various floors, paperwork on sheets of paper, circle-time below with other roaches. That’s what they call the lower-floor addicts: roaches. We were waiting for the drugs, what we called the System, to rewire us all.

On this floor we’re all just gravy.

On this floor there are just guards, and Ronnie, and Todd, and no. No, now I remember, Jamie only works days.

Sometimes when I take a break from searching for the door back to the System, I’m aware. We’re in a long line of wheelchairs, or lying on rolling beds, metal clanking and wheels locked together.

Todd’s voice calls out. “So here’s the deal, we’re going to the cafeteria for some sun, okay, kids? Vitamin D for the deadheads.”

We go clanging along the hallway, one long train of trust-fund rehabs, weaving and brushing against the walls. Sometimes we make a hard stop. The wheelchair in the front hits the doorjamb or someone’s wheel locks with another. It hurts the body, a hard hit against the metal frame, but I don’t feel it. The System has long since taken that connection away.

Todd’s wrong. We’re not deadheads but dead bodies.

Once in the cafeteria with its floor-to-ceiling windows, Ronnie brushed my hair. I felt his fingertips running up the back of my neck pulling and tugging their way through the strands. Trapped here for a full brushing of my hair. I was here until his fingers pulled through with no resistance.

Must have been the end of his shift.

As he misted my perpetually open eyes with the saline solution, he said, “Keep your eyes open, dawn is coming.”

Ronnie never looks me directly in the eyes.

I’d just come back from a sunny day, a warm breezy day on a mountaintop where flowers grew and grass waved at the sunshine. I stood on top of a world that gave me something, some thing.

This is the thing.

This is the thing.

I couldn’t even describe the pure pleasure of the fabric I wore, as it brushed against my legs. And my loose brown hair blew soft against my cheek.

This is the thing.

Ronnie said, “They’re not dead. I think they’re in there somewhere, trying to get back.”

“Okay, here’s the deal, you’re wrong because if they were trying to get back why would they be here?” Todd says. He balances his right buttock on the top of the desk.

Ronnie reaches up and nudges him off the tech pad. Todd leans left and the equipment slides free, from beneath his weight.

“You’re just sweet on that one because she’s not a total horror to look at. You think that princess with the glassy dark eyes is just working her way back to you?” Todd gestures at me. At me.

This is the thing.

This is the thing…

This is the thing…I don’t remember what order the perceptions of this world go into anymore. I only know that it’s real because of the discomfort. It is uncomfortable.

Ronnie leans back far in the chair and squints at Todd. He says, “I see something in there.”

“Okay, so here’s the deal, I do too,” Todd says.

It’s getting cold and dark. It is cold and dark here. I’m still here, watching them watch me.

“I see your reflection,” Todd says, slapping his fat sausage fingers against Ronnie’s shoulder. “I’m calling it projection.”

He’s right, Todd’s right. I’m not trying to get back. I’m trying to find that door back into the System. I worked my way up the ladder with the other roaches. I’ve been so long on the drugs that the System lingers in me. I just have to find the door. I’m an ambitious deadhead. I’m one more car on the gravy train, two hundred years alive, maybe three.

The trust fund was my family’s way to keep me here until a way was found to pull the System, the drugs, from me. But they’re long gone. I think they’re long gone. They were so quiet when they closed the door–I never heard them leave.

“Okay, so here’s the deal…”

“Okay, so here’s the deal…”

“Okay, so here’s the deal… Crash!” Todd yells.

He yells from somewhere I can’t see. There’s no Ronnie in the blue-white light of the desk lamp. No hairy forearm, just the computer screen registering the on and off of respirators.

“Okay, so here’s the deal, if we lose too many cars on the gravy train they’ll have to lay one of us off, or cut back our hours, or something,” Todd says, in between bites of a Victual bar. “Carla says, on the fourth floor, they’re down to bare-bones staff except for Mondays when the new roaches are dropped off.”

Ronnie is nodding again.

Todd kicks Ronnie’s chair, pushing him across the floor. Ronnie stops himself with a grab onto the counter. He pushes back into place by putting a foot onto one of the old boxes no one has bothered to move in centuries.

Ronnie gestures over his shoulder at me. “There are people in there.”

“No, not people, gravy trains.”

I’ve been here too long. The longer they have you, the harder it is to find the door. The door. I manage to close my eyes. It’s been so long I feel the pull of the lids as they scrape across my cornea. I hear the soft whoosh, the lullaby of my respirator kicking on. Let me go, let me go, let me go.

“Shit! Shit!” Todd yells, “Princess Deadhead closed her eyes!”

I’ve found my way back–in the System now. I’m standing amongst tall grasses under a setting sun, on a foreign planet. I am warm and breathing easy. The smell of a sweet grass and the sounds of moving water are somewhere nearby. I look up through the branches of a tree. I breathe deep and the wood gives off a scent something like pine and maple. The leaves are gone, but nothing here is dead. Nothing here is ever dead. Nothing here is ever dead. No thing.

The sun sets and above me, in the black expanse, stars drift by like fireflies. But they don’t glow white, or yellow, like I think I know they’re supposed to. Here, they glow blue. Briefly I think it’s the atmosphere changing the color.

I don’t close my eyes here. This is the thing. Here I don’t close my eyes. Here I don’t remember hunger or the sounds of industry, or the sting of a paper-cut. I don’t close my eyes here. I might fall back.

I thought I was quiet when I closed the door.

My eyes are open and my respirator quiet. I can smell the residual chlorine in the gowns. Exhale. I can smell stale sweat and the odor of the colostomy bags. Exhale.

They pumped me full of something. I can feel the echo of the moments before– they trail hands over my wrist. They check my injection sites. They take my pulse and put cold metal to my skin. They poke fingers into my eyelids and lift them, pushing my head back. They shine lights into my eyes and my pupils dilate.

They register my response. I am–more paperwork. I am–the gravy train. I thought I was quiet when I closed the door. But they heard me, and they pumped me full of here.

“I didn’t notice anything different,” Ronnie says. He’s bent over the monitor on the desk. He looks over his shoulder at me.

This is the thing.

Sometimes I come back and feel the echo of the cafeteria sunlight, tepid on my exposed skin.

“That was creepy the way her eyes rolled back and forth, like they were looking for something.” Todd looks over Ronnie’s curved back at my face. He looks me up and down but he doesn’t look me in the eyes now.

“Told you they were trying to get back here, back to us.” Ronnie looks at me, and then he punches Todd triumphantly in the shoulder.

“Okay, okay so here’s the deal, maybe you’re right. Maybe. Maybe your princess is trying to reach you, but she’s like two hundred and forty-three years old. And even if she wasn’t, ’cause I know we keep them well preserved, well, she’s going to have to make it back on her own. Okay?”

Ronnie sits down and hunches over the keypad. He’s starting the paperwork with no paper, just work. He’s nodding his head again like he’s listening to Todd, but anyone, even a deadhead can tell he’s not listening anymore.

“Okay? Cause here’s the deal…” Todd says. “We’re just keeping them alive. No one’s really working on a way to bring them back.”

Ronnie stops. He’s listening now.

“They’re alive, but no one’s even looking at these deadheads, ‘cause they’re the gravy. They’re alive but they aren’t the living.”

Ronnie walks over to me. He bends down inches from my face. He looks me in the eyes.

This is the thing. These things keeping me alive are keeping me alone.

This is the thing. I’ll keep trying.

I’ve got my hand on the door, I’m deep in the System, but I’m looking into Ronnie’s eyes. He stares so long that I hear Todd wander off to check on the others. He stares into my eyes like he could crawl inside with me.

He pulls wires from my equipment. He flips my respirator switch off.

This time it’s real quiet when I close the door.

Chloie Piveral currently resides in the American Midwest where she is perpetually on the lookout for an escape, most of all from the beast humidity. She is a 2015 graduate of The Odyssey Writing Workshop. Previous fiction has appeared in Kazka Press: 713 Flash Fiction and her poetry has appeared in The Mid-American Poetry Review. Visit her online at cpiveral.com for updates, or to see how long it takes her to dig a tunnel through Kansas.