CW: Political bias, death, blood
The blond, ruddy nurse, whose nametag read “Brian,” slid a needle into Judith’s arm. They watched her blood fill a plastic bag. Around her lay other donors, young people dressed in bright colors with tats and piercings. The clinic was cavernous with grey windowless walls and clicking fluorescent lighting.
When the bag was full, Brian removed the needle, compressed the wound, and handed her twenty dollars.
Judith gulped. “You pay even more, for…something else?” her cousin had hinted at a way to make more money.
Brian sat on a chair beside her and drew out a piece of paper that looked like a survey. “Tell me why you’re so eager to make money.”
She felt his gaze pass over her, taking in her cheap leggings, fake leather boots, and unkempt hair. “My niece—Lily—has leukemia. The family can’t get health insurance because of a pre-existing condition.”
Brian nodded. “And how do you plan to vote in the next election?”
Rowan had warned her about this. “Oh, I never vote,” Judith said.
He scribbled and looked up. “Just a few more questions. How do you feel about abortion?”
“Tough issue. I can see both sides,” she replied.
“Never thought about them.”
Judith drew a breath and exhaled. “It is what it is.”
Brian stood and walked over to a tiny woman in a white coat with a stethoscope. The two glanced up at a TV screen where CSPAN was playing. A senator from the Rat party in a grey suit with a face like an unbaked pie talked about freedom and responsibility. Judith couldn’t recall his name but remembered that his vote would decide the fight for universal healthcare.
“He’s on his last legs,” Judith overheard the doctor say. “If he doesn’t get a transfusion tonight…”
“But she has to be a match,” Brian protested.
“Do what you can. Both of our jobs are on the line. And our necks,” the doctor hissed.
Brian returned to Judith. “We’re looking for ectoplasma donors.”
Brian spoke fast. “Ectoplasma is soul stuff, ghost material. It’s like blood. We siphon off a little of your young, vigorous soul and transfuse it into the failing senator—hoping to save him from soullessness. Don’t worry. Yours will grow back in a few weeks. You just have to hydrate.”
Judith had no idea what Brian meant; his words sounded like jargon. But these were medical people. They knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t lie, and she had to get money for Lily’s treatment. “OK,” she said. “But I need $30,000.” Her mouth dried as she pronounced the absurd sum.
Brian was unfazed. “That can be arranged. But we’ll do the transfusion only if you’re a match. The senator belongs to the Rat party, while most of these folks…” He gestured to the young people stretched out on the beds. “Are members of the Dog Party. Just like with blood, a Rat body will reject Dog ectoplasma and could die from the shock. So, are you a Dog?”
“Of course not,” she said.
His mouth twisted. “Then you’re a Rat?”
Judith shook her head. That lie would be too obvious. “I’ve never been much interested in politics.”
Brian searched through his manual before looking up. “Transfusions can work if you’re a universal donor. In this case, if you’re a member of the Indifferent Party. Are you?”
Judith shrugged. “What do you think?”
Brian picked up her intake form and squinted at it. “So, yeah, yeah. Looks like you’re indifferent. Looks like you’d be a match.” He smiled and then frowned. Perhaps he didn’t believe her—or perhaps he thought that soul-stuff so lacking in passion couldn’t possibly save the senator. “How do you feel about healthcare?”
“Well, I care about my family’s health—passionately.” She glanced at the TV. “But I understand both parties have plans to provide universal healthcare.”
Brian scribbled and then carried the form to the doctor. Judith heard tense whispering. Then Brian returned. “All right, Judith. You qualify. But we need to move fast. Sign here.”
He led her to an empty room with chairs next to machines, shaved her head, and fitted it into a metal helmet. “You’ll just feel a pinch,” he said before pushing a button.
Judith felt excruciating pain and smelled burning flesh as needles pierced her skull. When he pushed a different button, she heard a screech and felt a deep ache. She found herself drifting and caught snatches of conversation. “Watch the dial, nurse. …As much you can – …no more than four units. … cannot kill the donor…liability.”
Brian peered into her face. Then a loud beeping from the next room startled him and he turned away.
Judith lost consciousness.
She woke to see her body slumped in the chair beside a table with a check on it. What had happened? Was she dead? But there was no time to mourn whatever had been lost in that helmet. She was being carried in a thick, plastic bag by bony fingers. Around her were other bags filled with silvery, translucent liquid, that moaned and jabbered and leaked odors of sweat, turpentine, and cheap perfume.
Would Lily get her treatment? Would that check ever be cashed? Not by the skinny, drained body with its wet underwear left in the chair. Judith’s unmoored mind lurched and scrambled to find another way.
Their only hope now was the senator. Judith would soon be running through the marble hallways of his brain, warming the cold chambers of his heart, filling the deflated passageways of his veins. She’d lied on the questionnaire. She was not indifferent. She had never been indifferent. She would make the senator different. She would turn this Rat into a Dog or kill them both in the attempt.
Frances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy at Western Washington University and is currently earning an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop and has published short stories in The Magnolia Review, Halfway down the Stairs, Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Religion, and other places. She is working on a novel, Square Peg.