“How do you feel?”
Lex had asked the question so many times it had become rote, yet today she yearned to know the answer. She couldn’t explain why.
The boy—man, young man, guy in his twenties, Boone, who knew or cared what she called him?—strained to lift his head from his pillow. His lean face, fair before, was now so pale it was translucent, transparent, whatever was the right word, she wasn’t thinking straight. Anyway, he looked saint-like, Lex thought.
“Better now,” he rasped.
“Good,” she said.
Lex didn’t feel guilty, not very, anyway. They always printed the recommended dosage on the bottle. She’d even told him what it was when she gave it to him, as she always did, to prevent an overdose like this. Not to prevent a lawsuit—the Somatic Co. always made each customer sign a release absolving them of guilt—but to show she cared, to be compassionate. It was Boone’s own fault if he hadn’t read the bottle or read it wrong. Right? Yet how could she blame him? He appeared so innocent. It had just been an accident, like everything else.
Boone’s original condition had been an accident, too, the reason Lex was sent to his apartment the day before. His slurred speech, facial paralysis, and foggy cognition had been the result of a TIA or Transient Ischemic Attack, caused by a temporary (and accidental) lack of blood flow to the brain. Boone had learned this after entering his symptoms into UDOC, which had automatically called Lex so she could come with her trusty bag of tricks, as she labeled the supplements she had been licensed (after an eight-day course) to administer to people.
“You’re the Suppleplier?” Boone had asked yesterday or tried to ask through his half-frozen face, using her new job title. (It was a mistake, Lex thought, when Somatic invented the term, the “TM” annoying to always add above or beside it). The rigidity of his lips had made Boone so vulnerable, so endearing—all right, so lovable—that she couldn’t keep from smiling when she’d answered…
“Yes,” and whimsically rattled the bottle maracas-style, causing Boone’s (blue) eyes to squint, the best he could do at a smile, given his TIA.
“Thanks,” Boone had tried to say, as she placed the bottle in his palm, their hands touching for an instant as his fingers folded over them. Another accident? Lex thought. (Every medical condition was decreed an accident now, caused only by physical forces. “Out with the inner life!” was Somatic’s slogan, blazoned onto Lex’s uniform blouse, also with a TM, beside “Somatic Repair”).
Today, after his ordeal, Boone’s face had improved. His mouth was free to move again, his eyelids not drooping, his speech steady. He was so white as to be purified and—the word came quickly to Lex now—beautiful. It turned out TIAs only lasted twenty-four hours. It hadn’t been the supplements—they’d been pumped out of him—and that gave Lex pause.
Lex hadn’t had to come, of course. Once, Boone’s landlady called the police who alerted UDOC and they sent a technician with the stomach pump; she’d only been cc’ed by Somatic as a courtesy, pending their (obligatory, she was sure) inquiry. She’d wanted to be there.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Boone whispered.
“I didn’t think it was,” she said. “That’s not why I came.”
He didn’t reply to that, just embellished what he’d said. “It was my fault. I didn’t listen.”
“I was worried, that was why.”
She waited but Boone made no such warm remark to this woman twice his age. Lex didn’t take that as a signal to stop, or leave. She kept on asking him questions, as if the more she asked, the more likely he would answer.
“Isn’t there anyone here to care for you?”
Boone shook his head, swallowing with difficulty.
“I just moved in,” he said, his voice growing dimmer with each word like a light bulb flickering out, “from my Mom’s and Dad’s house.”
In fact, when Lex turned to the nightstand to grab a glass of water to give him, she saw what she hadn’t noticed before. Unopened boxes were lined up in the living room like children pining for porridge in an old fairy tale. Lying a few feet away in the bedroom of his tiny apartment, Boone hadn’t made a move to open them. Despite his physical recovery, he was still paralyzed.
“Do you miss them?” she asked. “Your parents?”
“No.” Boone picked up and pressed a remote lying inches away in his bed. “Listen to this.”
A screen spanned the entire wall opposite. Turned on by Boone, its picture was impeccable but its sound low, no matter how many times he theatrically pressed the volume. Suddenly, it got deafening and startled Lex; then it became inaudible.
“It’s broken?” Lex said.
“It’s my Dad,” Boone croaked. “He always makes you lean in to listen when he’s not yelling like a gull. Either way, it’s always about him.”
On “him,” Boone pointed again at the screen with the clicker before flicking it disgustedly beneath the sheets.
“It’s a Compliance,” he said before falling silent, Lex’s true cue to go.
Going home in her Somatic-branded Jeep, Lex considered the encounter. She hadn’t known Boone was a believer in “Compliances,” one in a growing group of young people convinced that whether broken or super-functional, their appliances—phones, consoles, microwaves—could contain the spirits and evince the personalities of people in their lives.
It was a concerning trend, Lex thought. But wasn’t it the inevitable result of believing that physical illness was only organic in origin, caused by nothing more than internal malfunctions? Boone and other boys (and they were mostly boys) could acknowledge human psychology as long as it affected anything besides their own behavior? Right? Lex wondered: wasn’t it possible that the whole mind-body thing she’d read rumors about online…wasn’t it possible that leaving his family—growing up, in other words—had caused Boone such stress and guilt that he had suffered a TIA in the first place?
Well, Lex thought, shrugging as she approached the home where she lived alone, she’d be out of a job if such suspicion of the Somatic method spread. Doubts like this dawned on her most often when dealing with pretty patients, she was aware of it now. She had always diverted herself with work, unending entertainments on many devices, and her duties looking after her elderly mother in a nearby nursing home.
Tonight, after she entered her studio apartment, Lex had a new video message from her mother’s attendant. The old woman had taken a turn for the worse.
After two more than her usual nightly glass of wine, Lex fell asleep. She awoke at dawn with a strange feeling in her face. Glancing in the bathroom mirror, she saw that half of her features had dripped away from the other half. She looked like the French bell ringer in the children’s musical cartoon.
Lex typed the symptoms into UDOC. They yielded a cause different from Boone’s: “Bell’s Palsy, an acute peripheral and temporary facial palsy…cause unknown.”
In this condition, it wasn’t easy to swallow the supplements Lex prescribed for other people. Only by frantically mashing a few first into paste and then dust was Lex able to ingest them, licking them from her fingers and forearms, and then she needed a glass of orange-flavored water to kill the chalky taste.
Lex did not wish to see her mother like this. The old woman had always been impeccably turned out—even in the dementia ward—and had from the time Lex was little insisted she be the same. That her mother was, according to the attendant, currently unconscious made no difference. With a thumb, she dabbed up the last trace of supplement.
Not long after waking up, Lex fell asleep again. Twelve hours later, when she regained consciousness, her condition was unchanged, the supplements had done nothing, and her mother was dead.
Boone was still flat on his back in bed, yet he showed no signs at all of impairment. Empty paper food containers were strewn upon his quilt beside biodegradable utensils and steel straws. The boxes containing the evidence of his earlier life were still sealed, like ruins of an empire that might be reassembled at any moment. Garish splotches of pink spoiled the white purity of his cheeks and his stubble looked as if black bugs had died upon his chin. The screen across from him had been shattered, possibly by a tossed shoe.
“What are you doing back here?” he asked, with disbelief.
Lex couldn’t answer right away, for one side of her mouth was see-sawed down. Then she tried, addressing Boone in a voice both rushed and hushed, apologizing for barging in, confessing that she’d been wrong all along, that they all had been wrong; the supplements were worthless and the causes of conditions sometimes lay elsewhere, in our hearts and their minds. Why be afraid to admit it? Why were they all so afraid? She was afraid no longer, and how about him?
Lex felt drops on her hands, which were palms up, as if she were begging him. She looked down and saw that it was saliva from her half-shuttered mouth: her water was breaking, her ice melting, she was being born in water or going under it for good. Lex realized that she had hoped Boone would find her as beautiful in this state as she found him. She raised her head and saw that he was parting his own lips, but only to laugh.
Lex drove the Jeep home, moans escaping from the prison of her mouth. She had feared it would be a mistake to go and should have listened to the self expressing doubt. Maybe Boone had been right. What did she know? Who said she was so smart?
Now there was a new voice in her ears—or was it the same old one? Her mother yelled at her for everything, from how she’d looked to what she’d said. Then her mother moved out of her head and took hold of the wheel, became the wheel. Her car was a Compliance (was it an appliance? Wasn’t it a vehicle? Anyway, it was a big ticket item). The wheel swiftly started to spin, leading Lex to the left, without her looking in the rearview. She was being pushed into the passing lane, starting to hear the honks of horrified drivers, anticipating an accident.
Unless she was doing it herself.
Her hands shaking, Lex gripped the wheel and started to steer the opposite way.