Right to Live
by Gordon Sun
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Danny and Sue Miller each took a shower when they returned to the apartment. Afterwards, Danny stumbled into his bedroom and immediately dozed off, exhausted. His mom switched on the TV and drifted into the kitchen to start heating up leftovers for dinner. A newscaster grimly droned on about a suspected terrorist bombing in Portland and another congressional debate on whether to institute a mandatory draft. When a commercial began exhorting Sue to “Join the Armed Forces, and fight for your right to life,” Sue rolled her eyes and muted the volume.
A little while later, Sue spread out some spaghetti and meatballs, a few hard-boiled eggs, and a plate of mixed vegetables on the dining table. She wiped her hands on an old dish towel. “Danny,” she called out. “time for dinner!”
No response from the bedroom. Sue shrugged, walking down the hall and into her son’s room. Danny was huddled underneath a gray woolen blanket, a misshapen lump. “Hey, Danny, time to get up,” Sue said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
The lump rustled slightly. “Wanna sleep,” Danny muttered, his voice muffled under the covers.
“Yeah. I feel weird.”
“My tummy hurts.”
“Oh.” Sue frowned. “Do you need to go to the bathroom?”
“I did already.”
“You did?” Sue didn’t recall hearing the toilet flush. Maybe it was during that really loud commercial.
“I threw up.”
“You what?” Sue asked, alarmed.
“I threw up a little bit,” Danny repeated, poking his head out from underneath his blanket.
Sue’s head felt light. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Too tired. I wanted to sleep.”
“Do you think you can eat anything now?”
“I don’t know.”
Sue swore under her breath. “Danny, can you come out for a second?”
Danny wriggled out from underneath the covers. “My tummy still hurts.”
“Okay. Here, let me feel your forehead.” She placed a hand lightly on Danny’s forehead. “Well, at least you’re not burning up. Look, I made leftovers, but we can heat some chicken soup instead.”
“Mm,” Danny mumbled.
“All right, I’ll bring it here when it’s done. Just stay here and rest, okay?”
Sue got up and returned to the kitchen. She quickly put away the pasta and eggs, found a can of chicken noodle soup in the cupboard, and heated it in a small saucepan. Several minutes later, she poured the steaming soup into a bowl and brought both it and the plate of vegetables back to Danny’s room.
Danny struggled out from underneath the blanket, rubbing his eyes, and slowly began spooning up the soup. Sue chewed bites of carrots and broccoli, watching her son carefully. Hopefully he’d feel better tomorrow.
* * *
The next morning, Danny Miller felt worse, saying that his head hurt. Although he had stopped vomiting, he developed watery diarrhea instead and woke up to use the bathroom three times. Sue, who had fallen asleep in a chair in her son’s room after dinner, jolted awake each time.
Danny ate only half a bowl of oatmeal with raisins for breakfast and immediately went back to sleep afterwards. Sue frantically scrolled through webpages on her tablet, trying to figure out what to do. Her first impulse was to go to the ER but, just like in Vegas, most of them now catered specifically to military personnel and veterans. The only ER still open to the public was in Chandler, almost two hours southeast by bus. The pharmacy behemoth that dominated the Phoenix area had recently rolled out a few walk-in clinics run by virtual intelligence software, so that was next on her list if the ER was a bust.
Sue breathed a sigh of relief when the local news reported the DPI as a 1. The last thing she wanted to think about today was finding air filtration equipment.
Sue gently woke Danny, and after several minutes of her son’s yawning and foot-dragging, she managed to bundle him into clean clothes and lead him downstairs. While Danny tried to eat a bit more oatmeal, Sue ran the water purification system, filled up two bottles, and stashed them in a backpack.
Danny used the bathroom again, and afterwards his mom layered some sunscreen on him and put a dusty baseball cap on his head before finally heading to the bus stop. After waiting 45 minutes, a nearly overflowing public bus pulled up to the curb.
Sue and Danny didn’t even make it past the ER’s front door.
A lengthy line of people snaked around the entrance patio and spilled into a full parking lot. They joined the end of the line, who were fidgeting uncomfortably in the fiery midday sun. As the Millers approached the ER triage station, they began to hear the droning of a woman.
“Cold? No... Earache? Nope... Cold? No again. Definitely no antibiotics, sir... Okay, move along, move along... Headache? Have you heard of aspirin? On and off for five years? Jesus, why are you coming to the ER for this? That’s definitely a no... Congestion and cough? No. Nausea and abdominal pain? Let me guess, you’re just hungry. Yeah... Officer, do you mind?”
A heavyset, mustachioed policeman with a revolver, taser, and baton strapped to his waist stirred from his position, took the disheveled woman who had started to protest stridently, and brusquely steered her away from the station and into the parking lot with a shove. The other waiting patients reacted with a collective shrug.
Eventually, Sue and Danny reached the triage station, guarded by a pair of stressed-out nurses in dark blue scrubs. The cop returned from dismissing the other patient and settled into his post, watching the line carefully. Frigid air conditioning blasted over their faces.
One of the nurses fixed Sue with a cold stare. “What?”
“Um, my son’s been having severe vomiting and diarrhea since yesterday—”
“No,” the nurse interrupted.
“‘No’ means we’re done; it’s just puking.” The words spilled out of the nurse in a torrent.
“Wait, that’s it? It’s been going on since yesterday—”
“Probably ate something bad. Be a good mom, keep him hydrated.” The nurse’s gaze hardened. The policeman remained focused on the waiting crowd, but his fingers twitched near the baton.
“Excuse me, you can’t—”
“See this line?” The nurse halfheartedly waved in the general direction of the waiting crowd. “Don’t have time for y’all, okay? Too many people got careless in the sun yesterday.”
“Hurry up, Janet,” the other nurse said harshly. “They’re gonna cut our shifts and bring out the robot if we take too long.”
“No, wait. This is wrong.” Sue stood in place, crossing her arms. Danny leaned tiredly against his mom. “We want to see a doctor.”
“The doctor,” the first nurse said, shaking her head. “Officer, do you mind?”
The officer put a beefy hand on Sue’s shoulder. “All right, let’s go.”
“Hey, wait—” Sue stammered.
Wordlessly, the policeman guided Sue away from the station, his hand propelling her forward. Sue barely was able to grab Danny’s hand as they were awkwardly escorted back to the parking lot where the line ended. The cop gave Sue a stony look, spun on his heel, and went back to his post.
Sue started to turn around but felt a sharp twinge shooting down her back and thigh. Clutching her back with a hand, she stumbled over to a light post and leaned against it, grimacing. Danny anxiously hovered nearby.
“Goddamn waste of time,” Sue mumbled to herself. “Ought to sue the bastards—”
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” Danny asked.
“Nothing, dear,” Sue replied, trying to put on a smile. “Just need to keep going for a bit, all right?”
“I’m thirsty,” Danny said.
“Okay.” Sue crouched down, letting Danny retrieve a water bottle from her pack. He downed most of it in seconds. “Both waters are for you, okay? I’ll get something from the store.” Danny responded with a wan smile.
Sue stood up, gingerly testing her back. When the stabbing pain began to settle into a dull ache, they walked hand-in-hand to a small convenience store a few blocks away, where Sue purchased a large lemonade. After leaving the shop, she pulled her smartphone out of her purse, opened the GPS, and searched for the nearest VI clinic. “Oh, great,” she muttered, eyeing the 20-minute walk time. “Danny, how are you? Still thirsty?”
“A little.” Danny took the second water bottle out of his mom’s backpack. “I’m tired.”
“I know, I know,” Sue said, absently massaging her tailbone. “We can find a bus and wait.”
“I can walk,” Danny said. “It’s okay.”
Sue gave her son a quick once-over. The temperature wasn’t as sweltering as it was yesterday, but it was hardly comfortable walking on the unshaded concrete sidewalk. Danny was sweating quite profusely. “You sure?”
“Well... okay. Let’s go then. We’ll try to keep out of the sun best we can.”
Sue and Danny arrived to find yet another long line winding out the front door of the pharmacy. Danny finished the second water bottle and put it back in his mom’s bag. They took their place at the end of the line, Danny clinging to his mom’s shirttail while she sipped the lemonade absently.
For the next thirty minutes or so, there was little movement. However, just as a few people in line were beginning to complain loudly, a harried-looking clerk wearing a blue disposable surgical mask emerged from the back of the pharmacy.
“Folks, we’re very sorry for the delay. Unfortunately” — the man was interrupted by several groans but pressed on — “unfortunately, the VI diagnostic center has crashed due to overuse. The system won’t be back online until Monday at the earliest, possibly even Tuesday. I’m, uh, I’m sorry for the bad news. I know you all have been waiting—”
“What the hell?” a man near the entryway yelled angrily. A child with dirt-streaked hair clutched the man’s hand tightly and shivered. “We’ve been in line for hours!”
“I’m... I’m sorry,” the clerk stuttered, running a hand nervously through his hair. “I... we don’t know how to fix it. My manager’s trying to reach tech support, but they’re overstretched. Clinic VI’s exceeded surge capacity all around the city. They’ll get here when they can.”
“Then what good are you?” the man spat. “My kid fell off the swing in the park and hit his head.”
The clerk said nothing and retreated hastily into the building. The father who had spoken up earlier kicked the front door in frustration, and the boy started to cry. A few others grumbled curses. The crowd milled around for a bit longer, unsure of what to do next. Finally, after a few minutes, the people dispersed slowly, reluctantly. Doors slammed. Cars started up and drove away.
Since it was still business hours, the clerk had left the entrance unlocked. Sue entered slowly, her back still aching, with Danny not far behind. Other than the now-dark VI clinic, the pharmacy was not particularly noteworthy. They walked through the food aisles, picking up bananas, apples, and six cans of chicken noodle soup and tossing them in a small shopping cart.
Near the checkout stations, Sue saw a large stand filled with generic medications. After examining labels, she was able to identify an older prophylactic for stomach and intestinal problems and tossed a small package into the cart. Danny watched silently as his mom went to a self-service kiosk, paid with a credit card, and left with everything stuffed into a large plastic bag.
“What’s happening, Mommy?” Danny asked as they trekked to the nearest bus stop.
“The VI — the clinic’s closed.”
Sue sighed wearily. “The computers weren’t working, so they had to shut down everything.”
“Where are we going now?”
The Millers were quiet the rest of the trip back.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Gordon Sun