I’ve got little to say for this process, except that it all went by so fast, which kind of lends itself to what I ended up writing about.
This started out as an idea for a horror story, but I started from the beginning and things just snowballed and I ended up on drawing on more personal themes and experiences. In that way, things ended up being scary for only me and probably not the reader.
Prompts for the Final Round
Genre: Open (ended up being a drama, I think)
Thing: Side effect(s)
Character: a gravedigger
After the unexpected death of his girlfriend, a young man finds out that she wasn’t the only thing that he lost.
Cam was always freaked by hospitals because of her dad’s heart attack and her mom’s chemo, but I never was. Hospitals were those little plastic cans of grape juice and nurses touching my forehead with cool, blue hands and making me better. I was a sickly kid, and my parents would let things go too long: strep throat, staph infection, gastroenteritis, infected toenail. It was always about how much it would cost to get an x-ray and some amoxicillin at two a.m., and couldn’t I just be a big boy and get better in the morning instead? Less a guilt trip and more of a guilt vacation. Seemed like it was so easy for parents to make their kids feel like a burden for just being. I promised if I had a kid, I’d never be that way.
But Cam and I agreed we didn’t want kids, that it’d be better if we never passed on a cocktail of our genetic fuck-ups to an unwilling recipient. She was progressive like that. I agreed—but I hated when we talked that way. Like it’d be better to not exist at all than to be what we were: twenty-three and with no future or friends in this shit-kicker town. Which ended up being the way she died, so maybe she had a point.
“Could she be pregnant?” the nurse asked. I shook my head dumbly, so she tried again: “Aren’t you the boyfriend?”
Yes, ma’am, that’d be why I’m full-on snot-nosed crying in your ugly waiting room. I dug around in Cam’s purse for the pill pack. Cam had this vibration alarm on the fitness tracker I bought secondhand for her birthday last year. Organized her life by that thing. Even on weekends she’d roll over, pop her pill, and snuggle up so we could sleep ‘til noon. Sometimes she’d accidentally drape her watch arm on me and the buzzer would come like an electric shock.
I tried explaining this to the nurse.
“Was she taking any other medications?”
“Um, we were here—well, over at the urgent care—I dunno, four, five months ago? She had some, um, infection.”
The nurse stared at me.
“Like, when she peed. It hurt.” I felt my face grow hot. “It came back, so she went back, and they gave her more antibiotics.”
“You remember the name?”
I shook my head.
“Any family we can call?”
“I’m her family.”
They didn’t like that. I wasn’t ‘family’ enough, so they never let me past the front desk. At two, the nice old security guy gave me a taxi voucher and sent me home. I passed out on the futon, woke up to vibration thinking Cam’s arm was draped over me and it was five already.
My map app blinked an alert: updating shared locations. I pulled it up and saw her blue dot six miles away in that county hospital. But she was further south, now. She wasn’t in emergency anymore.
I had a sudden feeling then, that her little wrist alarm would go off and nobody would be there to stop it buzzing. I swallowed my cotton-coated mouth and tore through the recycling bin by the door that we never emptied and found some old pharmacy script. Dialed the hospital.
“Tetracycline,” I said when I got through to the nurse. Didn’t even know if she was the same one from before. Didn’t care. “That’s what they gave her.”
Silence. She sucked in a breath. She said, “I’m so sorry,” and I don’t which of us hung up first, but that’s when I knew that Cam would never make it out of this shit-kicker town.
I wasn’t family enough to be in the room and hold her hand when she passed, but I was the one they called when the medical examiner wanted to know her last wishes, where to send her, what kind of service she wanted. But I wanted answers. He told me it was an embolism, some kind of blood clot in her lungs.
“She complain about leg pain or anything the night before?”
Well, sir, she was a cashier. You might say it’s all she talked about.
“Risk of a clot like that jumps when a woman gets pregnant, or starts the pill. Her OB didn’t recommend someone get her on blood thinners?”
“Obstetrician, son. Baby doctor.”
“She was on the pill.”
“I know.” Long sigh. Shuffling papers. He said something about antibiotics interfering with that stuff. Didn’t buy it. Cam was responsible. She’d have read up on something like that.
Longer sigh. “Not sure what to tell you, son. Hell of a way to find out, though. You have my sincerest condolences.”
I had a kid. We had a kid.
We didn’t have a kid. ‘We’ had an empty bed and a payment plan for Cam’s discount burial befitting my delivery driver salary. Part of me wished she’d wanted a service. Or a cremation. The day she was buried I watched this top-heavy dude in his late thirties use his backhoe to scar up the fried brown lawn. Then, using a shovel, he carefully refined the hole into a grave, making the edges crisp and neat, a perfect fit. Like he was running out the clock making a display of begonias at Home Depot.
I hovered. “Look, dude, it’s fine, I mean—she’s not gonna care.”
He just shrugged. “It’s alright. Gotta get my steps in, anyway, right?”
I don’t know what I expected. I guess I’d thought it would have been more than a one-man job. Wheeled the cheap pine box over like she was a TV I needed help loading into my car. Lid nailed shut. Guess the view cost extra. I didn’t get to see her, just the box lowered down by machine, and covered up again by machine. It all happened so fast. How’d we miss it? Did she know? She couldn’t have known. Was she running from it? Was this all some elaborate conspiracy against me?
I swore I’d lost it when I heard buzzing: her tracker watch. On perpetual snooze since five a.m. the day she died. Or maybe I’d imagined it. I’d pull up my phone and see her location here. The little lithium battery was finite; it’d run out of juice soon enough. Ease the transition.
It didn’t. Imagine my surprise when I checked my maps app and Cam was on the far side of town at some new barbeque joint. I was out the door before I knew what I was doing. All I could think was she doesn’t even like barbeque.
I didn’t sleep. Got written up when I nearly drove off the road a couple times at work because the tracker pinged her as nearby. She was always on the move. Never there.
It was after five a.m. and I woke with a start, checked my phone. She was tearing through the park, early Sunday morning, on the shortcut she took to get to work where a jogger had found her collapsed. I was up, moving swiftly through the dark, door left hanging, barefoot on the wet grass—she was just ahead, within eyesight, inches away. I called her name—
“Fuck off, man, I’m serious, I’ll shoot!”
She looked sixteen, maybe younger. Talk like she was a lot of trouble. She jabbed the plastic pepper spray at my face. I backed away, hands up, nodded at her wrist. “Where’d you get that?”
“What do you care?”
I held up my phone, the map screen glowing blue. “Did you seriously rob a fucking grave for a fitness tracker?”
She scowled. She’d been crying, and the holes in her shoes betrayed she was the type of girl who dealt with her feelings by walking them off. Like Cam. It was a cheap release, the only kind she could afford. The way she held herself reminded me of someone.
“Did your dad give it to you?” I looked down at her oversized Converse sneakers, her mismatched clothes. “Did he give you those, too?”
She sniffed and lowered her arm at last. “Think we could afford them otherwise? They don’t need them,” she said, but she’d already crumbled. She yanked at the watch strap.
In her voice I could hear the same guilt my parents gave me just for being. Wanting. Needing. Existing. We all swear we’ll never become our parents. Now I never would.
“Hey,” I said. “S’okay. They don’t. More for the folks they leave behind.”
“What was her name?”
“Cam. Cameron. My girlfriend. Lived and died by that thing.”
“I’m sorry.” She bobbed her head. “She and I have the same alarm.”
“Early riser. That’s good.” I nodded, hoped she couldn’t see me break. “Sorry I scared you. I thought she…”
“Sorry,” she said again.
“Don’t be,” I said. “Promise me one thing, though? If you’re keeping it.”
“Get out of this shit-kicker town someday.” I pointed at the watch. “And take her with you.”